THINK OVER YOUR MEMORIES from school: middle school, high school, college, graduate studies, it doesn’t really matter. A history class, a course for machinists, freshman English, a Greek philosophy seminar, Drawing 101, whatever. Think about what you enjoyed. Chances are it involved freedom to explore your curiosity about things that mattered to you. It is likely that you had the range to pursue legitimate, deeper long-term interests while also trying out short-term activities. You probably got to play around some (or a lot) and were able to fail sometimes because you had teachers who supported you and helped you see that freedom and failure are intertwined parts of learning. Chances are you actually had fun in the classroom — not a frivolous kind but the sort that arises from having your mind engaged, from intrinsic motivation and not external pressures. You didn’t know it, but you were in agreement with John Dewey, in that you realized how “education […] is a process of living, and not a preparation for future living.”
Here is the bad news: since the 1980s, American elites have engineered environments that produce the opposite of these feelings and motivations. Indeed, there is a good chance, especially if you are under 40, that the sentiments described above are thin on the ground. They might even be nonexistent, wiped out or never there in the first place.
This reality is central to John Warner’s urgent new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. There is a crisis in how we teach young people, and for Warner this is especially salient in American writing classes. But it’s not the crisis you hear policymakers in Washington or your statehouse talk about, nor is it the sort of narrative that attracts New York Times columnists. The problem is not smartphone addiction, or oversensitive campus activists, or a lack of rigor on the part of professors who only care about their research, or unscrupulous teachers unions protecting bad apples, or millennials getting too many participation trophies, or helicopter parents, or whatever else bothers pundits at The Atlantic this week. It has, instead, a lot more to do with how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive. A bad thing happened when the standardized test met the austerity budget coming down the road.
As you may gather from the title, Why They Can’t Write is about how we teach — or don’t teach — students how to write effectively, particularly at the threshold between late high school and early college. However, Warner nests his critique of American university education within a broader polemic against a nation that funnels trillions of dollars into imperial wars while letting things like health care and K–12 education decay at home. His angle is pedagogical, but he also underscores the political economy of higher education, which, like many job sectors, frequently relies on poorly paid, unsupported part-timers to teach, especially in first-year college classes. Students, meanwhile, attend high schools stripped of resources and universities whose funding models burden them with crushing debt. Often they are hungry: everyone in the United States should be ashamed that half of the college students who report being homeless also work 30 hours a week. Terminal capitalism has metastasized into the ivory tower.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education released a troubling report titled “A Nation at Risk,” which alleged that American K–12 education was lagging behind the rest of the Western world and putting the country at risk of economic and social decay. Frightening stuff, and lots of elites bought it wholesale, despite the fact that scholars disputed its conclusions. The response of federal and state leaders was to embark on a path we haven’t left since: rather than invest in hiring more teachers and paying them better, or consider reducing class sizes, or do anything to address socioeconomic problems that circumscribe everything schools do (an impoverished student who shows up to class hungry won’t learn much), they concocted a byzantine array of standardized-testing regimens, overhyped corporate-ed fads (e.g., MOOCs), panoptic surveillance (like real-time facial tracking), vague buzzwords (“proficiency”), behaviorist control schemes, creepy charter schools, and draconian teacher-accountability metrics.
The result, Warner argues in his pointed, pragmatic, yet tonally mellow new book, has been a disaster. A battery of industrial-grade tests (I remember slogging through the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in first grade) has left students frazzled, depressed, and cynical about education while wearing down their teachers. A young person’s natural curiosity is obliterated. Contra the wisdom of pundits, by the time students get to college, after waves of SAT exams and ACT tests and AP essays and Common Core assessments, they “are not coddled or entitled. They are defeated.” Worse, according to the plentiful scholarship on the subject — which, Warner makes clear, is remarkably consistent in its conclusions — these tests do nothing to enhance learning. In fact, they constrain and damage the capacity of young people to develop sophisticated critical-thinking skills. None of this kept American elites from pressing forward with projects like George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and those Obama-Duncan joints “Race to the Top” and Common Core. Ambitious and often lucrative stuff, none of it did anything but damage.
There is now, Warner argues convincingly, a “curiosity crisis in schools.” The common complaint students will voice if you ask them — that they love learning but hate school — is not empty, entitled whining. It is a real cry of pain: “The popular image of college students partying because college is a time without care is out of date. It’s more likely students are seeking anesthesia against a world filled with worries.”
For Warner the pedagogical is a form of the political. What teachers and students do can either reinforce or contest the nasty changes — both material and intellectual — wrought by austerity. Thus, his primary focus, explained in the cool determined voice of an expert rather than the overheated Panglossian tones of an ed-reform huckster, is what students bring to college writing classrooms and how teachers engage them. Kingsley Amis said that a “proper writer ought to be able to write [about] anything,” and the prodigious Warner, who has taught at multiple schools for two decades while somehow also writing fiction, blogging for Inside Higher Ed, and editing at McSweeney’s, is well positioned to take on the subject of a debased education system where students are “doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do; that’s the problem.” Indeed, he rejects the popular “failing-schools narrative,” arguing with a great deal of evidence that American schools are functioning precisely the way they were designed to.
By the time students arrive in their first-year writing classes, which are required at most every institution of higher learning in the United States, they have a lot of baggage. Trained to write “Potemkin essays” for strictly formatted tests like the SAT or Advanced Placement exams (writing produced quickly under pressure and likely scored by a harried, underpaid reader), students enter freshman comp trained only “to pass standardized assessments” where curiosity and creativity are risks.
The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.
Good writing instruction gets short-circuited by the managerial, industrial model that dominates American schools. “Writing assessments that can withstand standardization,” observes Warner, “are fundamentally incompatible with the experiences students must have in order to develop their writing practices.” Take it from somebody who endured a lot of them: an AP exam is not a real piece of writing. But teachers who have to frantically prep their students to take standardized tests don’t have the time or freedom to develop projects that would actually interest students, while students are incentivized to become passive recipients of content and judgment.
As such, college instructors face the problem of having to deprogram their charges. In my courses at the University of Southern California, we spend time debunking various “rules” that students often internalize earlier in school: that you can never say “I,” that five paragraphs are the best shape for any argument, that personal experience doesn’t matter, that merely citing enough research sources makes for a cogent argument, that hitting up the thesaurus for big words helps you sound credible (the latter practice being something the SAT and its ilk reward).
But as any writer knows, “to write is to struggle,” and “[r]ather than standardization, efficiency, and proficiency, we should be concerned with choice, curiosity, risk, and the building of a critical sensibility.” Our goal should be to help young people develop real agency, to become independent agents rather than good neoliberal consumers, to be “self-regulating” and self-aware about what interests them, how this can inform their writing, and how to progressively develop their communication and critical-thinking skills. Students can write, if we give them the right tools and settings. Often, in my experience, they ache to.
At one point Warner outlines his core pedagogical goals, which will be sweet music if you teach college. True to his approach, these are working values, not strict guidelines:
- We seek to increase educational challenges while simultaneously decreasing student stress and anxiety related to writing.
- We seek to change the orientation of school from only preparing students (poorly, as it turns out) for the indefinite future to also living and learning in the present.
- We seek to provide experiences designed around learning and growth, rather than giving assignments and testing for competencies.
- We will end the tyranny of grades and replace them with self-assessment and reflection.
- We will give teachers sufficient time, freedom, and resources to teach effectively. In return, they will be required to embrace the same ethos of self-assessment and reflection expected of students.
Lest this seem too abstract, in the closing stages of the book Warner provides exemplary assignments from his own practice, not as rigid Platonic ideals, but as concepts that other teachers, the main audience for this section, might customize for their own classrooms. Real systemic change must entail reducing the power of education administrators and corporate ed-reform charlatans, and “return[ing] to teachers the freedom necessary to engage their students as teachers see fit.” Right now “it is hard to imagine another profession where its practitioners have less of a say in the specifics of their own work.”
Warner’s prescriptions aren’t just progressive fantasies, the stuff of teacher daydreams: they have long been common practice at places like Sidwell Friends, where the Obama daughters studied, and Lakeside Prep, under whose tutelage Bill Gates placed his kids. Obama and Gates might favor centralized testing regimens for most American children, but theirs were educated in environments that public-school teachers and adjunct faculty would salivate over, where fairly paid instructors are given the intellectual freedom and material resources to build curricula that excite young people, and none of this involves watchful administrators or industrialized exams or the stupidity of treating education as job prep. As Warner reminds us over and over, we know what works, and we do it for the affluent. It’s just that everyone else gets crumbs.
Warner underscores that he isn’t offering a cheap panacea or a “grand pedagogy” for American writing education. He might be a rich man if he did. Why They Can’t Write doesn’t retail a specific fix but instead articulates a set of humanist values that could generate rich new classroom practices and, one hopes, encourage teachers, parents, and policymakers to rethink the whole idea of School and why it matters to a society. Warner is pragmatic, not programmatic, and hopeful without being naïve.
It’s a tough hope to sustain, of course, because the news remains grim in both K–12 and higher ed, as the United States grows more economically unequal every month, as the wealthy hoard educational resources, as states continue to employ standardized tests while introducing cruel budget cuts, as college administrators double down on the use of adjunct professors and graduate-student labor (a vast socioeconomic crime in its own right). But when I talk to other teachers about their work, much of it already in line with what Warner is talking about, I’m heartened. When I can get my students to articulate what really matters in their lives, I’m heartened. (It rarely involves high-paying jobs.) When I see the teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma and Los Angeles, I’m heartened. American education has often been a brutal place for teachers and students. But it still is worth battling for — and there are plenty of people putting up a fight. John Warner is one of these. “The experts about what happens during the learning process are teachers and students, and we should be listening to them,” he contends. I agree. I hope teachers, parents, and administrators across the United States read his trenchant book. We are the reformers we have been waiting for. The task now is to bring American education into line with our deepest progressive beliefs, to reimagine schools as incubators of democracy and individual dignity rather than factories that reproduce the status quo.