The following originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
Among the many conversations within and about higher education, one persistent topic is the skills or competencies with which students graduate. In most of these conversations, skills are distinguished from content in a field. This distinction is often made among defenders of the liberal arts wherein the content base of a major such as literature or philosophy may not directly line up with a specific career like accounting does, but students develop the skills of reading, thinking, and writing. These proficiencies are valuable to employers looking to hire people who can interpret texts, communicate well, and continue to learn. In these conversations, strong communication skills, especially writing skills, are given priority.
One reason for the emphasis on writing skills is that they are notably deficient among vast numbers of students entering and leaving college. Many college faculty question the K-12 educational experience of these students and deem them unprepared for college work. Some resent engaging what they consider to be remedial work that should have been addressed in elementary school and high school. Nonetheless, colleges are working diligently to revise courses and curricula to address writing skills. Outside observers and critics of higher education look at college professors and question why students graduate college with poor writing skills. These critics are unsympathetic to the charge that students come unprepared and want to hold college faculty accountable for what is accomplished (or not) by college students. Regardless of who is to blame, twelve or sixteen years of working at anything is a substantial amount of time. The results should be better.
In trying to diagnose the cause of this problem, perhaps we are too narrowly focused on course design, assessment procedures, or faculty effectiveness. Maybe the lack of student writing skills is a symptom of something deeper. At the end of Civilization and its Discontents, Freud speculated on the possibility of diagnosing the sanity of an entire epoch or civilization. He didn’t search for such a diagnosis, but it raises the question of broad, socially prevalent patterns and their possible causes. And while student writing may seem to be a far more specific problem than the neurosis of a civilization, it is pervasive enough to search for deep-seated roots. To do so, we can look to the writers, highly accomplished writers, for insight and guidance.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a concern about language that might seem odd to those who are troubled by the poor writing skills of U.S. students.
I am so afraid of people’s word/They say everything so clearly:
And this is called dog and that is called house,
And here is the beginning and there is the end.
Rilke seems to be lamenting the very quality teachers and employers want from young writers – clarity. Our students are a long way from the overly prescribed use of language that bothers Rilke. Yet, his fear may offer a clue about what we should be looking for in diagnosing the underlying problem of student writers. He is afraid of a fixity to words that does not allow for interpretation, play, or imagination. Overly prescribed language lacks passion, personality, and uniqueness. Used in this way, language tends to exclude or obliterate its user. When this happens, the user of language becomes detached from what is said and the words lack conviction. Put a bit stronger, the writer doesn’t care about what he says as long as what is said mimics or fulfills expected and accepted style.
The call for accepted styles, or uniformity, is powerful at all levels of education. Uniformity makes it easier for accountability hawks to show apparent deficiencies in teacher performance, or curriculum design, or student support services. And yet, if we listen to writers from the pantheon of western literature, we see that a prescribed writing style is impossible as long as the writer is being true to what he wants to say. Samuel Beckett, widely recognized as one of the true masters of language, relied on and created several different writing styles during his career. His prose and plays are often dark, depicting the details of human mortality and its distressful, frustrating search for meaning, which, it turns out, is enormously elusive. In the wake of world wars and human atrocities, traditional sources of meaning such as those found through religion lose their suasion. The authentic writer can no longer write about a world in which meaning is taken for granted. The content or subject of his writing becomes unhinged, nothing fixed and not subject to mere representation in words or grammatical structure. Beckett conveys the outcome of an authentic writing life in Worstword Ho, a piece written near the end of his life.
On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on […]
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.
Here we see a master of language describing his relationship with his craft as failing. We also see an indomitable determination to persist at the task of saying what, in the end, perhaps cannot be said. He cares and so he tries again and again. He tries again to fail better.
Beckett’s American contemporary, T.S. Eliot, another master writer, has a similar sense of incompleteness and failure with regard to his writing, which he expresses in his 1940 poem, East Coker:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years –
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres –
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, of the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate…
Having witnessed the inescapable plight of suffering, these writers are after the inarticulate, the mysterious, the silent that does not lend itself to clarity. They are determined to fail better despite the uncertainty of what there is to be said. They search for meaning recognizing that the search may be all there is. As they go on, they are forced to experiment with words and wrestle with silence because the old meanings of words fail to resonate. The determination to go on at failing requires the freedom and the courage to not simply mimic. They cannot be detached and disaffected with the use of language if they are to go on in the face of failure.
One is tempted to say that the experience of these writers is nothing like the experience of the typical eighteen-year-old American student entering college. For the most part, this is correct. Certainly there is a different relationship with language. The vast majority of our students are not experimenting with styles searching for the elusive meaning of mortal life. And yet, in diagnosing the widespread ineffectiveness of twelve to sixteen years of classroom attention to student writing, perhaps there is something to be gleaned from the words of these intense writers. If they found themselves compelled to devote their lives to writing in ways they could only in the end consider to be failure because, in part, traditional sources of meaning had been eviscerated by human history, it begs the question of what sources of meaning our students rely on in shaping and navigating their stories, essays, and lives. Could they be sensing a deep sense of meaninglessness in the background of their writing assignments? Do they experience what Eliot describes as the “the general mess of imprecision of feeling/Undisciplined squads of emotion?” Are they disinterested or uncommitted because they instinctively agree with Rilke and resist the demand for a language that is too precise, a use of language that leaves them out?
When we ask our students to write about political theory, government, or democracy, should we expect them to care when a passing glance at the news indicates a system held hostage by politicians motivated by the lowest of human values? When we ask them to write about justice, perhaps they know that it really isn’t blind, but often favors the strongest or the highest bidder. When we ask them to contemplate and write about the beauty of the natural world, maybe they miss the old field covered by tarmac. Perhaps they intuitively know more than we (and they) realize and their sense of hopelessness in the face of intractable problems and contradictions leaves them voiceless or at least disinterested. And while Beckett and Eliot fought through and with language searching for meaning beyond that which is empty, but commonly accepted, our students muddle through turning in half-hearted assignments before they head to the beach, the mall, or the cubicle.
The parameters of most conversations about higher education have placed the liberal arts on the defensive. Leaders of liberal arts institutions are often caught trying to justify their value in business terms describing students as consumers seeking to quantify a return on their investment in strictly monetary terms. The narrow focus on accumulating skills is a subset of this equation. While every student should be concerned about her marketability, to reduce the goals of an education to financial returns is to blindly accept major assumptions about the world and a graduate’s place in it. One assumption underlying the call to reduce colleges to training schools is that the status quo is just fine and graduates should be educated to merely fit in.
Those who understand the value of a liberal education recognize the deep human need to live a life of purpose and see a world in need of change. They understand that change requires thinkers who have a voice, a passionate voice, committed to making things better. A good education raises the awareness that ignites this kind of passion. With this passion and commitment, students will have something worthwhile to write about. Their skills are sure to improve as a result.