More About Student Writing

FYI: This is a response to a paper submitted in one of our classes, so if I mention names that you don’t know, it’s probably the author who inspired my rant.

As college instructors, do we educate to a “lower” level or maintain what we’re already doing? Certainly, the educators of the nineteenth century would answer that we need to maintain or even advance the difficulty of college, but the democratization of universities has changed everything. Universities now find themselves teaching things that, to a college-educated mind, ought to have been learned in high school (or before). Unfortunately, there is just not enough regularity in the lower grades because of theory. Yes, because of theory. Theory, despite my love for it, has introduced the element of the Other into everything, including the subject of “grammar” school. School administrators are conscious always of the other, whether it be a minority presence or learning disabilities or even parents’ groups. The standard curriculum—the minimum requirements that students must achieve to pass out of grade school and high school—are so open to interpretation and variety that it is no wonder we see a vastly differentiated university population. Throw in international students and genuine learning-disabled students, and we have what Breeman refers to: a divide in language use ability that is difficult to bridge.

But the remedial system has its problems too. It creates another unnecessary division between students in the university. On a practical level, remedial courses must count as separate from a regular major. Those are credits that a student must pay for, but credits that cannot fairly go toward graduation. A learning disadvantaged student might need to take, say, six credits of remedial courses to catch up to the English 121 level. If 120 credits are needed to graduate, then that person may finish with 126 rather than 120 like the typical student who needed to remedial courses. Not only has that disadvantaged student paid more for his or her education, but also the student has taken a longer period of time to graduate. If we still believe in the myth of the four-year college program, then this student is already a semester behind the classmates she was admitted with.

Can we ask that certain students stay longer and pay more for their educations because they are not as keen with language as others? I think we can, without a doubt or a bit of guilt, because college, no matter how much a part of the current cultural initiation process, is still an option.

Not everyone has to go to college. Not everyone needs a degree. We foster an unfair image of success in the United States, one that paints a corporate job or engineering firm as the epitome of the American Dream. Wearing a suit to work is more desirable than working as a line cook or electrician. If this view were to change, and people were to accept what some might now consider a “lesser” career, then the so-called problem with student writing would diminish simply because there would be fewer students entering college.

The best way to overcome this cultural image would be, I think, to implement an apprenticeship system in the United States on a much wider level. Similar to the suggestion made by Andrea Lunsford for her writing courses, an apprenticeship system for many careers would not only teach by practice but would also help students better learn values that we already desire: patience, hard work, and dedication.

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