10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It Was the Most Literate of Times, It Was the Most Illiterate of Times

Each week, it seems, brings another doomsday proclamation about the future of American literacy. This past week's entry came from Stanley Fish, who opened his New York Times blog with what is for professors, young and old, a recurring lament: the inability of students to "to write a clean English sentence." In Fish's case, the concern was especially pressing, as the students he was talking about were not his undergraduates, but his graduate students, the very same people responsible for teaching the next generation of incoming college students how to write. "They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart." The consequences of this were immediately clear: since these were the folks teaching his school's composition classes, "What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses?"

Despite this opening, Fish's piece is not ultimately a doomsday forecast about the degeneration of writing as today's unfit mothers graduate instructors train a whole new generation, who train their degenerate offspring in turn--until finally the six coherent words strung together by Fish's students will be held up as the epic of a long-lost rhetorical golden age. But there it was, laid out in terms too obvious to ignore. Worrying over the death of newspapers or the impact of the Kindle seems as pointless as arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We are doomed! Doomed, I'd tell ya... if I could remember how.

There is of course nothing new in such visions of the future. Americans have long been terribly insecure about writing. From the minute independence was won, visions of literary and linguistic degeneration danced in the minds of American educators and social commentators across the land. There are dozens of examples, but here is a parody from Judith Sargent Murray in 1794 of the productions of one of her young "educated" correspondents: "I have read all the books that I could possibly get, ... yet no desolate deceiving man, has ever come with his deceptionary tales to traduce me."

Almost a century ago, in 1913, the papers tittered over the recently-publicized charge from its own trustees that Harvard undergraduates' writing "shows a lack of compactness and nice expression," and generally fails to "approach the high standard of language" found in other generations. That same year a study published in Outlook magazine suggested that the vast majority of college students "missed a cog somewhere in the wheel of education" in that they lack "the ability to write a correctly spelled, grammatical letter."

Each generation has taken its pot-shots at the slipshod grammar, neologisms, and complete unconcern with clarity in the writing of young people. And each generation has been utterly convinced that things are getting worse. How else to explain the wild popularity of Twitter, the micro-blogging site that limits all posts to 140 characters or less? Or the fact that many took as entirely serious this spring's parody from Slate, heralding Flutter, nano-blogging for those who just don't have time to Twitter. Or that fact that the parody now seems to be depressingly serious with the launch of Adocu, which invites its users to just one "word": OMGICANTBELIEVETHISISFORREAL!

And yet, the more things change the more each generation continues to write pretty much exactly as badly as those that came before. Ever read old postcards or telegraph cables? Today we lament the loss of these once vital modes of communication, but in their day they were responsible for precisely the same laments and jeremiads as Twitter and Facebook are in ours. In the 1880s, at the height of the telegram craze, the British poet Austin Dobson mourned for a more leisurely age of writing:

With slower pen men used to write,
Of old, when "letters" were "polite;"
In Anna's, or in George's days,
They could afford to turn a phrase,
Or trim a straggling theme aright.

A generation later this same poem was quoted as part of an extended lament about the impact of picture postcards: "A few lines of greeting upon them is far easier than to do a descriptive letter, and so the letter-paper makers suffer and the art of letter-writing keeps on declining."

I for one take comfort in seeing the same curmudgeonly old complaints from my peers in generations past as I do in seeing precisely the same bad writing in my students. Young people's writing is not getting any better or worse than it has ever been: it is often quite bad for the same reason that young people often don't wear seat belts and put things in and on their body that twenty years from now will fill them with horror. Good writing is an old person's game: it requires more than anything two qualities most young people happily lack--a sense of shame and a sense of mortality. All one has to do is visit a young person's Facebook page to know how very much they lack these two senses. Eventually they will come, of course, and then, like that tattoo from freshman year, there will be pained attempts to remove the traces of their former traces. But until then, they will be Twittering, and texting and (so they tell me) "sexting." The only difference technology makes is not that our young people are worse writers than their predecessors, but that their very bad writing will live on to haunt them as prospective employers and romantic partners google them for eternity. For me, that is a horrible thought. I am so grateful that the effusions of my younger years are lost to the ages so that I can grow old with some semblance of grace. When I write now, I write well for the same reason I always make sure I am wearing clean underwear: the thought that I might die and thus be remembered wearing holey briefs is akin to the terror of leaving behind a mixed metaphor.

Of course, there is no headline in declaring, as I am here, that there is in fact no story here--that our students will continue to write badly because they can and we will continue to lament it because we must read their writing, and that our prose in its turn helped hasten our poor teachers to their waiting graves. And so on, back to when young Cain wrote, "I so totally did not do it!" Nor, to be honest, is there much pleasure. And I for one will never begrudge my colleagues for complaining about their students writing, even as I try not to bemoan the sorry syntax of so much of my own students' prose. They will get their comeuppance, I remind myself, counting my new grey hairs in the mirror.

What does seem new to me in this particular moment, however, is that for the first time we have folks openly arguing that writing is actually getting better. The most highly publicized version of this comes from Wired magazine, always eager to find a bright light in any digital storm, reporting on recent findings from the Stanford Study of Writing, a project overseen by Andrea Lunsford. Counteracting the usual start-of-term moans and groans about the end of literacy as we know it, Lunsford declares that "we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization." For Lunsford, the "life writing" our students are doing in class (Twitter, Facebook, and the like) is not only making them write more, but better.

Now this terrifies me. I am the first to argue we should stop beating up our students for being the same sloppy, careless, overly emotional and involved writers we were when we were their age. Our job is to guide them toward the toolset they will need when they start caring whether people actually understand what they are saying, or, better yet, worrying what people will say about their writing after they are gone. But if we start holding this up as the products of a new classical renaissance, we as a people are truly doomed. Not to the vision of slackjawed illiterates imagined by Fish, but to something far, far worse: to being forever nineteen. OMGICANTBELIEVETHISISFORREAL!