Writers Talk About Writing
How Does English Instruction Add Up?
Back when I went to high school (that would be in the dark ages when our cave classrooms were lit with Survivor-style torches and we chiseled hieroglyphs onto the walls) I did really well in English, social studies, and law. But I barely survived math.
In fact, I passed Math 11 by solemnly promising never ever to take the subject again. At the time I even thought that was a trick question. Despite my struggles with math, I never had a tutor and never regretted not having one. While hard for me, math class still struck me as something I could feasibly pass on my own. Especially since I was never going to go anywhere near a career requiring math. Like, duh.
English, although I did very well at it, was hard. We regularly had to produce long, well-argued essays that were fiercely graded for style, grammar, and logic. We didn't get any points for merely hitting the 1,000-word mark — the essays had to be persuasive and well-written. Then there was our reading list: shockingly long. I clearly remember my grade 12 teacher discovering that we'd never studied The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, so against all our protests she added it to our already mile-high reading list.
When I attended university the next year I found it substantially easier than high school. I'd been turned into an essay writing machine and that skill paid off big-time. It also led to my career.
Flash-forward 30 years and now my own three teenagers are in high school. (Two of them are home-based learners, registered with an online program.) And, oh, how the world has changed. Suddenly, English seems to be easy-peasy for just about everyone. One daughter's latest grade 10 assignment is writing an essay on TV commercials and, get this, the school even provided her with a pre-written outline. (Not that I believe in outlines — I don't — but who decided it was okay for the teacher to try to do all the essay-planning work for the students?)
Furthermore, the entire course looks lame and thrown together. It's also mind-numbingly repetitious. My daughter had already written an essay on TV commercials in grade 8 and her Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet — the same play she studied last year.
Contrast this with math. That subject is now so challenging that most of my friends' kids have tutors! Two of my own kids require math tutors and they also get substantial help — not from me, fortunately, but from my husband, a.k.a. Mr. Math. Trouble is, one daughter is in grade 11 enriched math and is already starting to tiptoe into stuff he doesn't understand. So she may need a tutor too.
Bottom line: today, math is super hard and English is super easy. How did this happen? How did we, as a society, decide that English was so unimportant?
Now I'm not arguing that we should go back to the bad old days of diagramming sentences and reading only Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. I'm simply saying that kids need to learn how to write. Most kids today seem to learn that via Facebook or Twitter rather than what they're taught in school. As a result we have a generation that knows BRB means "be right back" but doesn't understand how to construct a well-reasoned argument. They also need to learn how to read and, to me, that means more than gobbling up Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series.
I agree that kids deserve a better education in math than the one I received, but I don't think we should tell them that math is more important than English.
For all the pedagogues who read this column, please note that I'm not casting aspersions on all teachers. There are some good ones out there. (For sure, I put Shannon Reed who writes a column for the Visual Thesaurus in the good category.) I'm simply saying the current educational system seems to value math at the expense of English.
And while this situation gives me great consulting work at large corporations, boosts sales of my writing instruction guide, and helps me look something like a rock star of writing, it does no favors to our society.
My advice? Complain to your school principal and if that doesn't work, teach your kids to write yourself. And if you don't have kids, work on your own writing. As linguist Charles Hockett put it, humans "don't live on bread alone — (our) other necessity is communication."