Finding a Point in Writing and Speaking

January 2020

John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 2018, 272 pages.

Joseph Clair, On Education, Formation, Citizenship, and the Lost Purpose of Learning, Bloomsbury, New York, 2017, 128 pages.

R.R. Reno, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Patriotism, and the Future of the West, Regnery Gateway, New York, 2019, 182 pages.

John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write is a better book than the title suggests. The main title plays around with the now-cliché title of Rudolf Flesch’s famous 1955 book on reading incompetence Why Johnny Can’t Read and its 1981 sequel Why Johnny Still Can’t Read—and the dozens of books, articles, and reports with titles that have stated, with exasperation, that He/She/They Can/Can’t Read/Write. The subtitle of Warner’s book calls for the death of the five-paragraph essay, a demand that many writing instructors might view with some perplexity, since the five-paragraph essay (or hamburger essay as hungry people prefer to call it) has been dead for a long time.

As I say, the book is better than the title suggests. Warner writes with clarity and wit, and he correctly identifies some of the difficulties facing teachers tasked with instructing students how to write. Students, Warner says, have been cultivated in an educational environment that emphasizes standardization and rubrics ahead of thinking and thoughtful expression. Students learn to behave like actors, rather than students; their writing instruction devolves into something like community theatre, with students putting on a show of what writing could be like—if only it were real.

Warner says these problems originate in an underlying problem: Students have nothing to say. And there can be no words if there is nothing to say.

Warner offers a range of possible solutions, some better than others. Give students more freedom to speak their feelings. Get rid of grading. Stop teaching grammar. Help students to become well-rounded readers. Treat writing as a process, and don’t forget to edit. Let students lead the classroom. Kill the five-paragraph essay, of course. And also: Stop sequestering writing to the classroom, where it has an audience of one (the teacher) and find a wider audience for students. Writing that is never meant to be read can never be writing worth reading.

The diagnoses and prescriptions offered by Warner, a writer and professor of writing, are hardly original. Dozens of new writing textbooks authored by writers, academics, and writer/academics hit the market each year, each repeating much of what has already been said by authors in the year before. Warner is right when he says that the problem is not one of intelligence. Today’s students are as capable as any generation. But they lack passion. Why write this crap?, they ask. Why does this matter? Who cares?

And who can blame them? Today, students study in an environment where attention is at a premium and distraction is sold on discount. They accrue massive debt to earn a credential everybody says they cannot find success without. Add to that the threat that the world will end if we don’t reduce our carbon output and we can begin to understand why so many students suffer an existential malaise.

Nobody should be surprised if students write without soul if the spirit has been stripped from their education. This is not a call for theocratic revolution, but a plea for some spiritual water. Atheists have done their job too well. They washed metaphysics from the academy, and whatever residues were left progressive educators have ably dissolved with their harsh solvents.

This is tragic, since young people will always ask “What is the purpose of life?” It is a cruel thing to say to a student that they must figure it out alone; to say that I, your teacher, refuse to step into that thorny debate. If you can’t find a way to the good life, that’s your fault. And really, if you think about it, the search for purpose doesn’t matter, since, as we have already determined, there is no truth in the universe, no purpose in life, and no meaning in words. It’s all an invention of the mind. Learn well, kids: Truth is for suckers.

Teachers unsure how to teach writing, and who have never read books on how to teach writing, will find in Warner’s book a good starting point for conversations with colleagues. But the problems Warner identifies are deeper than what happens inside a writing classroom. The biggest challenges relate to convincing students that they should care (a point that Warner makes); that higher education can be relevant to their whole lives; and that there is such a thing as truth, reality, and “the good.” Because, really, why search for knowledge if there is no truth and no point to the knowledge we find, other than to exert power?

Two books that diagnose and attempt to treat this malaise might be deserving of a teacher’s time. The first—On Education, Formation, Citizenship, and the Lost Purpose of Learning, by Joseph Clair—taught me much about the deeper problems in academia. Clair roots through St. Augustine’s works on education to show how a full education must form the spirit and morals of a student. An education that doesn’t is little more than training for functionaries. Clair gives CPR to older understandings of liberal arts education, and he succeeds in getting a gasp out of me.

The second book—Return of the Strong Gods, by R.R. Reno—stands back from our current political climate and gazes at what has happened to the West since the end of the Wars. He argues that the impulse to dissolve strong beliefs—that is, to create an open society—made sense after the traumatic wars against fascism. Today, however, the constant undermining of shared systems of belief and the vengeful apparatus of skepticism operating in civil institutions and embodied by universities have gone too far and made communal living, nationhood, and happiness all but impossible. He warns that the strong gods—patriotism, religion, tradition—will return because, according to Reno, we need them in our lives. We face a “crisis of solidarity,” we need a “we,” and to find the harmony we seek, we will put limits on how open an open society can become. It is a battle that pits those who want to throw open the door on everything against those who want to close and lock it. It’s already raging in our populist politics and it will intensify, particularly in academia, ground zero for battles over what should be taught and what can be said. And it could be ground zero, too, for compromise and honest language, if we could believe the truth of such concepts.