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The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, "Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to?"
What Mr. Darrow was contending can be summarized in the statement that the effective use of the English language is more important than the "correct" use of it, and that if you can speak English "correctly," but not effectively, it does not matter very much "who you talk it to." I agreed that day, ten years ago, with Mr. Darrow's contention, and I still do, but whereas ten years ago his remarks served to dismiss for me the problem of the teaching of English, they serve now, in a new context of experience, to raise that problem to a position of peculiar educational and social significance. For, like
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many others, I have come to take a serious view of the apparently astonishing discrepancy between the opportunity and responsibility of the teachers of English and the actual contributions which they appear to make to the efficiency and well-being of individuals and of society.
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The point of view which I have to present with regard to this problem has gradually developed during the decade that I have spent, sitting near the end of the educational conveyer belt, helping to put certain finishing touches on the human products of the scholastic mill. This is a way of saying that my experience has been chiefly with graduate students. When they arrive in the graduate college they have had, as a minimum, sixteen years of formal education. During practically every one of those sixteen (or more) years they have undergone some kind of training specifically designed to enhance their skill in the use of the English language. In spite of this, there falls upon me, as upon other directors of Masters' and Doctors' dissertations, the task of teaching graduate students how to write clear and meaningful and adequately organized English.
What are the linguistic shortcomings that the teachers of English seem unable to correct? Or do they in some measure nurture them? First of all, it is to be made clear that grammatical errors are not particularly serious. Whether or not they find anyone to "talk it to," the majority of graduate students have been taught most of the rudiments of "correct" English. In fact, it appears that the teachers of English teach English so poorly largely because they teach grammar so well. They seem to confuse or identify the teaching of grammar with the teaching of writing. In any event, what they have failed to teach my graduate students about writing is not grammar. It is skill in achieving factually meaningful statements, and skill in organizing statements into an order consistent with the purposes for which the statements are made. The students have not been taught how adequately to achieve either precision or systematic arrangement in the written representation of facts. This can be stated in another and more significant way by saying that they have not been taught how to use language for the purpose of making highly reliable maps of the terrain of experience.
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These students exemplify the simple fact that although one may have learned how to write with mechanical correctness, one may still have to learn how to write with significance and validity. One of my friends, who is a particularly astute investigator of the psychology of reading, has stated essentially the same problem by saying that the one place in which a child is not likely to learn to read is the reading class, for the simple reason that one cannot read reading. One can only read history or geometry or biology, etc. If the child reads such material in the reading class, then it is difficult to see how the reading class differs appreciably from the classes in history, geometry, and other subjects. If the child does not read such material in the reading class, then the reading class must differ from these others, but in a puzzling and perhaps disturbing way, for it may be that the reading teacher is actually making the amazing effort to get the child to read reading.
In the teaching of writing, or any other of the language skills, the same problem appears. One cannot write writing, any more than one can read reading. One can only write, just as one can only read, history, or geography, or physiology, or some other such subject about which writing can be done. One can, of course, write about writing, but what one writes about writing will have little, if any, significance except insofar as one writes about writing about something else. We have to deal here with a very general, and a very crucial, problem. What is true of reading and writing is true, also, of speaking, or drawing, or painting. It is true of mathematizing. It holds for any kind of symbolizing. Just as one cannot, with significance, read reading, or write writing, or speak speaking, except insofar as one reads about something, or writes about something, or speaks about something, so one cannot, with significance, symbolize symbolizing in general except insofar as one symbolizes the symbolizing of something.
It seems clear to me, as I attempt to analyze the writing difficulties of graduate students, and as I ponder over my own
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experiences as a student of English, that these considerations, sketched immediately above, are crucial. The teacher of English appears to attempt to place the emphasis upon writing, rather than upon writing about-something-for-someone. From this it follows quite inevitably that the student of English fails in large measure to learn the nature or the significance of clarity or precision and of organization in the written representation of facts.
He learns grammatical correctness reasonably well, because that is emphasized. But so long as the student's primary anxieties are made to revolve around the task of learning to spell, punctuate, and observe the rules of syntax, he is not likely to become keenly conscious of the fact that when he writes he is, above all, communicating. If he is to learn to communicate effectively, he must realize that his first obligation to his reader is not to be grammatically fashionable, but to be clear and coherent. One does not just communicate, one communicates something to someone. And the something communicated is not the words used in the communication, but whatever those words represent. Moreover, the degree to which there is communication depends precisely upon the degree to which the words represent the same thing for the receiver or reader that they do for the sender or writer. And the degree to which they do is an index of the clarity of the communication or written statement. Thus, clarity can be measured, not just "felt" or "appreciated," but measured, in terms of the ascertainable agreement between writer and reader, and among various readers, as to precisely what the words of the writer represent.
My graduate students have not been taught this. They write as if they had been trained to observe a principle of caveat lector. Such a principle, strange as it may seem, is championed, in one form or another, by certain teachers of English. Mr. Cleanth Brooks, Jr., writing on the subject of communication in poetry in the journal, American Prefaces, in 1940, expresses this curious point of view in these words:
The theory of communication throws the burden of proof on the poet, overwhelmingly and at once -- the reader tells the poet: here I am; it's your job to get it across to me --
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when he ought to be assuming the burden of proof himself. Now the modern poet has thrown the weight of responsibility on the reader.
I have quoted Mr. Brooks because he has succeeded in stating with unusual conciseness this strange notion that the writer is properly under no obligation to be communicative. I do not wish, on the other hand, to be understood as saying that a reader has no obligation to try to meet a genuinely original (and therefore difficult) writer half-way, for obviously many writers and poets, dissatisfied with the cliches of their time and trying to create new ways of feeling (i.e., to recanalize the reader's semantic reactions), must necessarily rely upon the reader's willingness to accept a revised vocabulary of an unfamiliar set of symbols. But this is a problem only in extremely advanced levels of artistic composition. In undergraduate instruction, even to imply that a writer has no obligations to his readers is to become, whether one wishes to or not, an advocate of obfuscation.
Such advocates of obfuscation apparently teach fairly well, if it is they who have instructed my graduate students. They have never learned, so far as 1 can see, to take the reader seriously into consideration. They do not, to be sure, artfully avoid clarity; they artlessly fail to achieve it. The contention that in writing they are communicating, that they are addressing a reader, simply strikes them as a novel point of view. They do not rebel against it; many of them just don't understand it.
This basic notion of communication, however, is not extraordinarily difficult to explain, and as it begins to sink in, and when the students have seen a few demonstrations, not of the reading or criticizing of communications, but of the process of communicating by means of writing, they are at least prepared to understand that there are techniques of clarity. Moreover, they are able to understand that these techniques have something to do with effectiveness in writing -- unless one means by writing a gyring and gimbling in the wabe of literary slithy toves, or unless one believes the excuse offered by frustrated literary midwives: namely, the "only-God-make-a-tree" theory that effectiveness cannot
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be taught at all. But this definition of "writing" and this theory of "effectiveness" have practically nothing to do with the kind of writing that involves communication. For communication is achieved by virtue of clarity, as this is defined in terms of agreement between writer and reader, or among various readers, as to what the writer is referring to. The ability to achieve clarity in this sense, and thus communicative effectiveness, is a tree that others besides God can make, at least in a rough fashion.
This discussion is not designed to take the place of a textbook for the teaching of effective communicative writings, but it is offered in the hope that a brief statement of a few simple principles upon which such writing is based might serve at least to raise the question as to why these principles are not more adequately taught by English instructors.
The first of these principles has already been given in the statement that clearness depends upon, and can be measured in terms of, the degree of agreement between the writer and his readers as to what the words of the writer represent. Simply by striving for a high degree of such agreement, the writer discovers, in some measure, his ingenuity in achieving it. He discovers the usefulness of conditional and quantifying terms, the confusion created by leaving out significantly differentiating details, the degree to which the meaning of a term varies from context to context, and the kinds of differences he must allow for among his readers' habits of interpreting words. He learns to rely less on the dictionary and more on the linguistic habits of the people for whom he writes. He discovers that literary posing, pleasurable as it may be, usually can be enjoyed only at the expense of effective communication -- that Chesterton's paradoxes or Paul de Kruif's chronic astonishment are more titillating than informative. He discovers that there are various levels of abstraction, and that if he goes systematically from lower to higher levels he can use so-called abstract words and still be reasonably clear.
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Above all, perhaps, he discovers the basic significance of order, or relations, or structure, or organization. This matter of structural relationships has wide ramifications, and no writer ever exhausts it, but the student quickly grasps some of its more obvious aspects, if he is striving for agreement between himself and his reader. It does not take him long to understand that the organization of what he writes should correspond to the organization of what he is writing about if the reader is to follow him readily. The graduate students with whom I work frequently have difficulty organizing their descriptions of experimental techniques or procedures, and I have found that it is more helpful to refer them to a cookbook than to a textbook on composition. By examining a cookbook they see at once that the organization of a description of procedure is determined simply by the order of the events that make up the procedure. First you do a, and then b, and then c, and you write it in that order because you do it in that order. This simple principle of order is fundamental in practically all descriptive, narrative, and expository writing, and it is obvious to anyone who is attempting to be considerate of the reader.
One might suppose that graduate students would know this, but in spite of the years they have spent in English courses most of them seem not to have learned much about it. The more significant fact is that, as a rule, they learn quite readily to apply this simple principle, once it is clearly explained and demonstrated to them. In this case, certainly, one can make a tree that either God or the English teachers forgot to make.
One aspect of organization that seems to have eluded practically all graduate students is that involved in the making of transitions. Even those who have been taught how to lay beads in a row have not been taught how to string them. Just as the order of what one writes is determined by the order of the parts or events involved in what one is writing about, so the ways in which transitions are made in the writing are determined by the ways in which the parts or events are related in the realities one is describing, narrating, or explaining. The ability to move from one sentence or paragraph or chapter to the next, in such a way as to blend them into a unified
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whole, is largely dependent upon an understanding of the reasons for going from one to the next, of why one statement should follow another instead of the reverse, of why one should say, "It follows, then," rather than "But." And these reasons are found in the character of the relations existing among the details of that about which the writing is being done. This becomes obvious to one who is not trying to write writing, but who is attempting, rather, to write-about-something-for-someone.
Another principle underlying communicative writing is that clarity is a prerequisite to validity. It is to be considered that statements that flow beautifully and are grammatically superb may be, also, utterly devoid of factual meaning, or meaningful but vague, or precise but invalid. For writing to be effective, in the sense in which I am using this term, it may or may not be grammatically correct, but it must be both clear and valid. It can be clear without having validity, but if it is unclear its validity cannot well be determined. It must, then, first of all, be clear; it must be that before the question of its validity can even be raised. We ask of the writer, "What do you mean?" before we ask, "How do you know?" Until we reach agreement as to precisely what he is writing about, we cannot possibly reach agreement as to whether, or in what degree, his statements are true.
Only to the extent that the various readers of a statement agree as to the specific conditions or observations required for ascertaining its validity, can the question of its validity have meaning. And the extent to which the readers of the statement agree on these conditions is, of course, indicative of the extent to which the statement is clear. If a statement is such that its readers do not agree at all as to how it might be verified or refuted, the statement may be "beautiful" or "rich in meaning" or grammatically irreproachable, but it is also, from the point of view of scientific courses such as I am teaching, nonsense. It cannot be demonstrated to be valid or invalid, and is meaningful, therefore, to its author, possibly to his English teacher, and perhaps to his psychiatrist.
My graduate students have not learned this, either. They show this in a particularly disturbing manner when they first attempt to state the topics or problems they propose to inves-
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tigate in undertaking their theses. They quite characteristically propose problems which preclude the possibility of clear discussion. They propose questions for investigation, for which they desire to obtain precise answers, but which are so stated as to be unanswerable. Apparently they have never been taught that one cannot get a precise answer to a vague question -- that the terminology of the question limits the clarity and thus the validity of the answer. Many students are so befuddled on this point that they do not recognize any relation at all between clarity and validity. They actually assume, for example, that they can ask, "What causes personality maladjustments?" without specifying what they mean by "causes," or by "personality," or by "maladjustments," or what observations one is to make in order to comply with their definition of "what." Many of them appear to have been taught that to eliminate the vagueness of a question or statement is to destroy its "richness of meaning" -- that for a statement to be "full of meaning" it must not mean anything in particular!
Even though they have been so taught, and come, therefore, to the graduate college quite untrained in the writing of valid statements, they can be taught, to a considerable degree, to gauge the validity of what they write. They can be trained to do this by being trained, first, to write clearly. For when a statement is made clearly -- when there is reasonable agreement among its readers as to what it represents in the realm of fact -- its validity can be judged, or a procedure for determining its degree of validity can be devised.
In summary, then, what graduate students, as I know them, have not been well taught -- and what, in my judgment, their English instructors should have been able to teach them, because the students do learn readily -- is the ability to write a clear, organized, unified, and valid document. They have been made familiar with grammar, for the most part, and they have picked up a few tricks of literary flavoring. The grammar can be used to advantage; most of the literary condiments have to be chucked.
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There appear to be three main reasons for the English instructors' failure. The first is that they do not appear to utilize to any considerable extent the principle of teaching by example. They tell the student how to write and how not to have written, but they don't, as a rule, do any actual writing for him or with him. They show him examples of what has been written, but no examples of something being written.
To try to learn to write by reading literature that has already been written and thoroughly jelled, instead of by observing the actual writing of literature, is much like trying to learn to bake a cake by eating one, instead of by watching the baker make a cake. And if you hold the write's pencil you learn faster, just as you do if you hold the maker's mixing spoon. It is the old, old principle of teaching by example, and what the teachers of English forget is that there are no examples of writing in the grammar book or the anthology; there are only generalized blueprints of statements yet unwritten and examples of something already written -- cakes that were baked yesterday. The teacher herself has to provide the examples of writing, to demonstrate the process. She must bake the cake of written English, not merely eat the cake that Hawthorne baked, as she stands before the class.
The second, and a more grave, reason for their failure is that they appear to place the emphasis on "writing," rather than on writing-about-something-for-someone. You cannot write writing. Or, at least if you do, you are not likely to learn how to write with clarity and validity, because they are not important to one who merely writes writing. Unless the emphasis is placed upon writing as a form of communication and directed very definitely, therefore, to an actual, live reader, the importance of clarity, organization and validity is not likely to become very apparent. Their importance becomes obvious, and the means of achieving them suggest themselves more or less readily, the moment one begins seriously to write about-something-for-someone.
The third and final point in this "diagnosis" of English instruction is that teachers of English, with apparently only a few exceptions, cling tenaciously to two strange theories.
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The first is that writing is an art, and the second is that it cannot be taught. What they seem to mean when they say that writing is an art is that writing does not have to say anything -- except to the reader who has "appreciation" -- that writing is at its best when it is a form of expression qua expression.
In teaching the student to write, if one takes this view of "writing as an art," there is no point -- in fact, there is a strong argument to the contrary -- in training the student to express himself clearly or with validity. For truth that is "not art" would be of no value, and if art that is clear is regarded as a contradiction in terms (and it seems to be so regarded by some), there would remain only truth that is vague as the ideal of the teachers of English whom we are here discussing. But in communicative writing, truth is never vague, for unless a statement is clear, the degree to which it is true cannot be determined. All of which goes far to explain how students can reach the graduate college without learning how to produce effective communicative writing.
The explanation is extended when we recall the other theory, so popular among some teachers of English, that real effectiveness in writing, since it is an "art," cannot be taught at all. Only God can make a tree; the teacher of English can only water the tree with verbal dew in the hope of keeping it green, and even the value of doing that is debatable. Teachers frequently boast of having "discovered" a writer; it seems that this in itself is regarded as no mean accomplishment. It is also to be noted that writers are sometimes said to have been "influenced" by a teacher. But when a teacher has "discovered" a writer and "influenced" him, he cannot further add to what the genes have done, nor detract from what the fates will do. Presumably, then, he doesn't try. And this pedagogical swooning by the teachers of English, on the theory that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, results in their making a great many sows' ears out of silk purses. It is not a question of the truth or falsity of their theory that effective writing cannot be taught, although this theory is probably not as largely true as many teachers of English suppose. The significant point is that the theory makes for unimaginative and lackadaisical teaching. Even God's
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trees might benefit from some systematic pruning and spraying.
My own narrow concern with all this lies in the fact that the ineffectiveness of the English instruction in our schools makes for a serious difficulty in the graduate college in all its branches. But the problem has an importance far more vast than this fact could ever give to it. For the ability of the individual, and of groups of individuals, to use language clearly and with validity is basic to personal efficiency and general development -- it is basic to sanity itself -- and it is fundamental to intelligent social organization and to the adequate management of national and international problems. The teachers of English in our schools and universities have been and are being entrusted with the heavy responsibility of training the members of our society in the effective communicative use of our language. It is not a responsibility that they can meet appropriately merely by teaching the formalism of grammar, or superciliously disclaim by asserting that effective writing is an art and cannot be taught.
Effective writing is a human necessity in anything resembling a democratic culture, and this becomes increasingly true as the culture becomes increasingly complex. If the effective use of language cannot be taught, or if it is not to be taught to a far greater extent than it has been, we may well have occasion to despair of the grand experiment dreamed by Voltaire, championed by Washington and Franklin, and cherished by the American people through many generations. And if we must despair of that, then truly, even if you do learn to speak correct English, it may well not seem to matter very much "who you talk it to." For when the people cannot adequately speak or write their language, there arise strong men to speak and write it for them -- and "at" them.
The issues of which I write are by no means to be regarded as academic issues. We are a symbolic class of life. To say that we are human is to say, above all and with incalculable significance, that our problems, as individuals, as groups, and as a world culture, are. symbolic problems. They are problems that center around the symbols of government, the
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symbols of finance and general economy, of social status, of power and prestige, of class and race. They are the problems involved in the great institutionalized symbol systems of the Church, the Law, the State. They are problems of meaning, of evaluation, of orientation, processes which, on human levels, are predominantly symbolic in character. It is not the vestige of some forebear's whim that the whole structure of our educational system is founded squarely on the three R's, for reading, writing, and the use of numbers are forms of behavior in the absence of which human society would disintegrate and vanish. The degree to which these forms of behavior are cultivated and made adequate determines, more than does anything else, the degree to which a symbolic class of life may escape the threat of self-destruction and achieve cultural maturity. Our maladjustment, no less than our genius, as individuals and as groups, lies in our way of responding to and with symbols.
The place of the teacher of English in the structure of a symbolic society is, thus and indeed, not one to be occupied by petulant little men engrossed in verbal "fancy work." It is not too much to say that our possibilities for progress are determined, and limited, by those who instruct us in the use of our language. This view is as disheartening, perhaps, as it is challenging, but the more challenging it is to some, the less disheartening it need be to others.
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