The Thinking 

Teaching Stupidity

April 26, 2011


AT the website Minding the Campus, Mary Grabar writes about her experience at a major convention of college-level composition teachers. She reports:

After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested in teaching students to write and communicate clearly. The group’s agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting’s 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against “marginalized” groups and restrict self-expression.

Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is “good enough.” The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as “grammar police,” and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.

Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as “performance,” as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their “agency.” Expressions are made through “the body,” images, and song—sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet. Clothes are rhetorically important as “instruments of grander performance.”

So panels focused on everything but the written word as traditionally understood. Offerings stressed civic engagement, multi-media, sustainability and “eco-composition,” multilingualism, student self-assessment, student extra-curricular experiences, student “engagement,” cross-disciplinarity, hip-hop, Native American traditions and languages, digital storytelling, “queer rhetorics,” “feminist rhetorics,” “visual rhetorics”—and all the usual ethnic grievance communities: Chicano, African-American, indigenous, etc.


                                               — Commenys —

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

I say, more power to Mary Grabar for publicizing the wretched state of college-level rhetoric and composition, a project that I too have from time to time pursued, although not for some years. The descent of “composition studies” began in the mid-1960s. I once looked at the 1966-67 (I believe it was) issues of College Composition and Communication, which reveal a coup-d’état in which the revolutionaries, led by none other than Peter Elbow, ousted the unsuspecting grammarians and traditionalists. The tedious and culturally suicidal attitudes on display at the Atlanta convention that Grabar so valiantly details were in place by the mid-1970s at the latest. Naturally, the great fermenting compost-heap of “compositions studies” has gone on producing new toxic compounds. Decadence can last for a long time. 

I can add something to Grabar’s critique. In every institution of higher education where I have worked, the incompetence and insipidity of student prose has been a scandal in almost every department or program except the composition department or program. Never once, however, have I noticed anyone with any institutional power draw the obvious connection between the scandal of student illiteracy as observed and the anti-literate tenor of the composition curriculum. One big reason might be that, couching itself as it does in leftwing rhetoric, the ideology of illiteracy promoted by the compositionists makes itself immune to criticism from others on the left – which would mean the vast majority of the professoriate. 

Then again, for thirty years at least the literature professors have been writing in the “postmodern prose” that descends from English translations of the late Jacques Derrida. This too is a type of illiteracy. One type of illiteracy necessarily reinforces the other type when their promoters enjoy the safety of tenure in the same tax-supported institutions.

Fred Owens writes:

I was taught composition in high school by rigorous Jesuit educators. I have modified and changed what they taught me, but I remember the rules. I am also a grown up and no longer a student, so I sometimes break the rules. I have played with grammar, and put the end at the beginning and the beginning at the end, or turned it upside down altogether.

When I break the rules, I know that I am breaking the rules, because those good teachers taught me well.

But it’s not like that today. It’s changed, and I’m not writing you to defend traditional rules of composition. English has become a global language. It is no longer confined to the descendants of northern Europeans. Millions of people who are not grounded in the context of English culture use English as a first or second language.

This might explain some of the formlessness of modern prose. English is globally rampant and out of control at this point in our history.

But I do not fear this changing linguistic climate. I have been reading the classics. Right now I’m reading one of Shakespeare’s history plays. The value and luster of his language will endure — I am completely sure of that.

Laura writes:

Anyone who uses English still works within its established rules for the most part or fails to communicate much or achieve more than minimal literacy. So I don’t know why you wouldn’t defend traditional rules of composition. The globalization of English has had zero effect on the need for these rules. There have always been innovations, new slangs and dialects that have influenced it, but the written language still largely determines what will survive over the long run. Grammar may change but it never becomes antiquated or obsolete unless there is a total collapse of civilization.

Hurricane Betsy writes:

Don’t get me going on this. Please cut me off at the pass. 

Two things, though: 

1. “Grammar Matters” by Gila Gomeshi. The contents of this book can be easily deduced by the author’s name. 

2. Fred writes, “When I break the rules, I know that I am breaking the rules, because those good teachers taught me well.” Yes, indeed. My Grade VIII teacher told us that when we were writing an essay in our schoolwork, we could use certain types of incorrect grammar intentionally if we acknowledged (in parentheses, after the sentence or phrase) that we were doing this for a certain effect.

Alan Roebuck writes:

And let us not forget why they teach stupidity.

The leftist believes that no God (neither God nor gods) exists and therefore Man is the supreme being. But Man is obviously weak and flawed, and men contradict each other, so the leftist cannot have any assurance that truth, goodness or beauty really exist.

Therefore all that remains for the leftist of the transcendent things is opinion, self-assertion and tolerance of the assertions and opinions of others. These become the Holy Trinity of the left.

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