Of course, unless you are a Dadaist poet, you have to write
about something. But after reading thousands of essays (a noun
I much prefer to “arguments”) about abortion, gun control, and
gay rights — all important issues — I decided that, on my return
to Freshman Comp, I would ask my freshmen to essay (a verb I
prefer to “argue”) on a topic they all presumably knew something
about: high school. I began with a simple prompt for the first essay: evaluate the education you received over the last four years.
Next I asked my students to write profiles of their best or
worst teachers. They seemed to like this, largely because it gave
them a chance to vent some pent-up spleen and settle some
scores, at least on paper. I noticed that most students chose to
describe the poor teachers and to enumerate their many flaws.
Very few—and these were mostly students from parochial
schools — chose to profile a good teacher.
After that exercise, I asked my freshmen to describe assignments, curricula, class discussions, and books they had liked or
disliked. I told them that writing is a movement back and forth
between observation and insight. I said: first describe a thing in
detail — a person, a place, an experience — then let that description lead to some insight, some take-away value. That’s what
readers want, I emphasized, to get something out of what they
have read. I told my students to try to think of me not as the
teacher who would a;x grades to their essays, but as an ordinary
reader who was interested—which I was, and am—in what
goes on these days in American high schools.
What I ended up taking away was pretty grim, both on the
content level and with regard to the writing itself. In terms of
content, this is the picture that emerged from those fifty essays:
• Many teachers show no passion for their subjects.
I am obviously drawing these conclusions from wholly anecdotal
evidence. But because the uniformity of that evidence was so
overwhelming, I think it deserves some serious consideration.
There were exceptions. Almost everyone could produce at least
one example of a good or great teacher from high school, someone who inspired or stirred intellectual curiosity. But overall, my
students described days of endless worksheets, lifeless lectures,
and an impenetrable fog of boredom.
After reading all of these existential scenarios, I decided to hand
out an essay by John Taylor Gatto called “Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why.” A career New York City
schoolteacher, Gatto argues that students are bored because they
are supposed to be. The education system is intentionally designed
to shape them into a passive mass who will, in bovine fashion, join
the labor force and become unthinking mass producers and mass
consumers. Public education, in Gatto’s estimation, is a scheme
dreamed up by the captains of industry to incubate servility and
ultimately sabotage anything like a real democracy. I don’t think
my classes quite bought into Gatto’s conspiracy theory (“yeah . . .
maybe . . . whatever”), but they did agree that the American high
school classroom is pretty damn dull.
What concerned me as much as my students’ disdain for their
teachers, though, was the quality of their writing. Potential ideas
lay dormant and undeveloped on the page; basic rules of grammar
and punctuation went unheeded; logic was all but absent. After
reading that first round of essays, I began annoying my friends
with dire, unprovoked brooding on the dismal state of high school
education in this country. More than one friend warned me against
committing what I have come to call the Breakfast Club fallacy. In
that flawed, but seminal, ’80s high school film, the assistant principal is complaining to Janitor Carl that the kids have changed,
gone bad, turned on him. “Bullshit,” replies Carl. “The kids haven’t
changed. You have.” That’s the Breakfast Club fallacy: the kids aren’t
getting worse; I’m just getting older and more cantankerous.
Maybe so. My own high school was hardly a proving ground
for intellectual inquiry. Still, I’m concerned, and for the same reasons that led George Orwell to write the essay “Politics and the
English Language”: bad writing leads to bad thinking, and vice
versa; uncritical acceptance of others’ prejudices can lead to people
marching around with signs displaying Hitler mustaches on an
African-American president. In fact, the entire faith we put in democracy as a form of governance rests on the fragile assumption
that, in the realm of free and open debate, conscientious thought
will more often than not carry the day. And that assumption, as
Thomas Je=erson saw more clearly than the other founding fathers, rests in turn on a viable system of public education.
Citizen education “was the central, defining moment of [Jef-ferson’s] political and moral philosophy,” wrote political theorist
Benjamin Barber. “Everything else turned on it.” Throughout his
correspondence, Je=erson maintained that only an educated citizenry can practice true self-governance, and toward that end he