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Writers Talk About Writing

Hasty Thinking in a Culture of Shortcuts

Last month, one of the most coveted high schools in New York was embarrassed by a consequence of its own good fortune. As the domain of high-achieving, relatively well-off students, Stuyvesant High School doesn't need metal detectors at its doors. Without one, though, Mayor Bloomberg's ban on cell phones in schools is unenforceable. And so, according to school officials, one student photographed several state exams with his iPhone, and distributed the images to 70 of his peers.

As soon as the scandal broke, critics pounced, decrying the ways in which evil technology now allows smart rich kids to run amok like never before. Just as quickly, rumors of the boy's expulsion began to circulate online. But if observers were to take a moment to get their facts straight (the instigator had not been expelled) and hear the students out, they'd see a very different, more troubling problem: Stuyvesant students have learned the world of their parents too well. In fact, they responded to the cheating allegations with the same haste and lack of consideration as the critics.

"Nayeem Ahsan is a valued member of the Stuyesant community," students wrote in a petition, misspelling the school's name and yet drawing 251 signatures in defense of the cheater. It goes on to describe the many "selfless deeds he's done for the class of 2013," and says that his expulsion would "leave the senior class of 2013 defunct. Expulsion from his home for the last three years is an exorbitant repercussion for his mistake, Nayeem does not deserve to have his future ripped out of his hands, simply so the administration can set an example." 

Stuyvesant's English teachers should be beside themselves. Is this petition — a bundle of misused words, grammatical mistakes, and typos — the most forceful argument New York City's best and brightest have to offer? Their class will not become "defunct." The future cannot be "ripped" from anyone's hands. And the concept of a run-on sentence seems foreign to them. But what's the big deal? Why do we care if some kids write in clichés or fail to proofread?

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay called "Politics and the English Language," in which he argued that the "slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." And the foolish thought the petition-writers have is this: getting caught cheating is simply a mistake, and a mistake can be justified.

Orwell was writing about how the leaders of our nation prioritized argument over fact. In order to "defend the indefensible, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." Eighty years later, little has changed. In Washington, all that matters is getting your message out faster and more forcefully than your opponent does, regardless of whether that message is right — or even makes sense. And the rest of us aren't much better. Read the comments section of most articles and blogs, and you'll see a slew of sloppily written, poorly argued, and often viscous responses. Technology isn't problematic because it enables cheating. It's problematic, because it enables us to shout loud and fast: to speak before we think.

Take the Stuyvesant petition. The writers argue that getting caught cheating is not a moral transgression but a mistake. And because it's merely a mistake, Ahsan's behavior is easily excused. This argument is as slapdash and messy as the petition itself, something the writers might have realized had they been more careful with their words and less eager to hit "send."

But the kids who drafted the petition (and the cheaters they're defending) live in a culture of shortcuts. If adults respond hastily and emotionally, often without thinking things through, then why should we expect students to be any different? Certainly, we can't argue that students are irresponsible with technology, without examining the way we use our own devices and online platforms. So before you take to the comments section of this story, consider the example you're setting for the next generation. Agree or disagree with this argument. Write with the strength of your convictions. But take your time. Check for clichés and, at the very least, check your spelling.  

Jennifer Miller's debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, (Harcourt 2012) features a teenage reporter whose only friend is the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Allure, Salon.com, Fast Company, The Millions and the Daily Beast. Visit her website www.byjennifermiller.com or follow her on twitter @propjen.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 24th 2012, 5:12 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
I'm from England and work with language, and I loved your article.

I especially liked the "mistake" bit. This has become a curse in the UK: Lord Archer apparently made a "mistake" for which he went to prison for two years; the chairman of the Tory party apparently made a "mistake" when he lived as a non-dom (thus not paying UK taxes) while heading up a major political party; the MPs who accepted money to ask questions in the House of Commons (it was actually a newspaper sting) apparently made "mistakes". No, what these people did was at best immoral, and at worst criminal.

I am not religious, but that doesn't mean I'm not moral (rather the reverse, I sometimes think!)

Thank you again for your piece.

Nick Shepherd
Tuesday July 24th 2012, 6:34 AM
Comment by: Edward H. (Hatton United Kingdom)

The irony of your comment is delicious. Please tell me it was deliberate.
Tuesday July 24th 2012, 7:45 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Electronic calculators were first introduced when I was in my elementary school years. I recall that we were required to do our math work in written form first and then were allowed to use them only to check our accuracy. We weren't allowed to use them to work out our assignments without producing proof that we had done the work on our own.

Today students are not only allowed to use calculators to do their work, but they're expected to do so. Consequently, we encounter people that are unable to do simple math in their heads. When we arrive at a cashier to find a price of $10.55 for example and offer the cashier $20.55 we're met with a look of confusion. Too little is expected of people these days and their ability to cope suffers as a result.
Tuesday July 24th 2012, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
..."than you opponent does", speaking of proofreading.

[Fixed! —Ed]
Tuesday July 24th 2012, 10:52 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Not sure what "viscous responses" are. Interesting article, though. The students who see the cheater as their hero reveal an attitude toward the test (and perhaps all learning) as a burden imposed upon them, an enemy that must be defeated by any means. They are missing the great joys of life.
Tuesday July 24th 2012, 3:16 PM
Comment by: Terri W. (Beaverton, OR)
Excellent article! These students sadden me. They are passionate but lack morals—and writing skills. I graduated from college about eight years ago, and I have only seen a continued decline in writing and editing skills in my peers and those who are younger.

I’m so thankful for those high school teachers and college professors who “tortured” us with loads of homework. There are no shortcuts to mastering a language. Like Doc Woo posted above, this burden becomes a joy. I love writing and editing. I love communicating. Heck, I love words! :) I wish more teachers and parents demanded honest hard work and that students would rally. I wish they could experience the joy that comes from discipline.
Tuesday July 24th 2012, 4:55 PM
Comment by: Derek B. (Moorpark, CA)
Thanks Ed.

McKean has formulated 'McKean's law', a variation on Murphy's law: "Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error."

Erin McKean, Founder of Wordnik
Friday July 27th 2012, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Would it be closer to truth to say "at BEST criminal, at WORST immoral..."?
To me, moral integrity trumps criminal malfeasance as a virtue.

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