The Core Standards for Writing: Another Failure of Imagination?
Publication Date: 2010-02-17
This Commentary is from Education Week, Feb. 3, 2010. Reprinted here with permission of the author.
Her penultimate paragraph reads:
Hurston follows none of the standards above, for "writing to inform or explain." She doesn't need "multiple sources," her explanation is not "complex," and the reader is not likely to have misconceptions in the first place. What she does do in this essay, however, is remind us in the grim, gray world of writing standards that there is also humor in the world.
The following are additional standards, for "writing arguments":
"Establish a substantive claim, distinguishing it from alternate or opposing claims." (Standard 16)
"Link claims and evidence with clear reasons, and ensure that the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims." (Standard 17)
"Acknowledge competing arguments or information, defending or qualifying the initial claim as appropriate." (Standard 18)
Are we in high school or law school? And again, are these standards that real writers follow?
Some do follow them. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" does, for example. But another brilliant essay, H.L. Mencken's "The Hills of Zion," a passionate argument against evangelical Christianity and anti-intellectualism, does not. Like Hurston, Mencken chooses, with good effect, to do none of the things that students "must do." He attends a revival meeting, and essentially lets the facts speak for themselves.
I don't want to argue that these standards are not worthwhile. But I do maintain that they are not a realistic reflection of arguments in everyday life (letters to newspaper editors, for example, are often limited to 150 words). And I am convinced that, were they to be adopted, the dropout rates among students bound for the working world would make our current rates tidings of comfort and joy.
I offer one more standards-breaking illustration from the Oates-Atwan anthology: William Manchester's "Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All," one of the best essays of the lot. It has everything: humor, passion, pathos, information, description, narration, argument, and more broken rules than a Rabelaisian convent.
The essay does not "establish and refine a topic or thesis" (Standard 1), it establishes several. It does not "sustain focus on a specific" anything (Standard 3). It does not even "create a logical progression of ideas or events" (Standard 5). And as for the "conventions of standard written English" (Standard 9), most English teachers I've known would not approve of starting 12 sentences with "but" and 11 others with "and," "yet," or "so." Or with using a total of 30 sets of dashes in one essay, not to mention using "I" 12 times in 20 lines. They might also question using a colon after "sai"Ă˘€ť to introduce a quotation, or having single-sentence paragraphs such as this: "And now it is time to set down what this modern battlefield was like."
Last fall, the National Council of Teachers of English issued the following call to everyone for submissions to the National Day on Writing (Oct. 20, 2009):
"We invite letters, memoirs, lists, poems, podcasts, essays, short stories, instructions, reports, editorials, video clips, biographical sketches, speeches, invitations, hopes and dreamsĂ˘€"writing that matters most to you."
"Writing that matters most to you"--that's the spirit that animates all good writing, from William Manchester's essay, to kids' kindergarten attempts. I urge the core-standards-makers to reconsider the excessively narrow and unrealistic standards they have proposed. Were those standards to be implemented K through 12, they would kill that spirit and diminish the role of imagination, which the poet Wallace Stevens once aptly described as "one of the forces of nature" in the world of words.
Edgar H. Schuster has taught English at both the high school and college levels. He is the author of "Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction" (Heinemann, 2003).
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