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Joseph Smigelski

Joseph Smigelski

Posted: May 28, 2010 11:23 AM

Why Can't Tiffany Write?

What's Your Reaction:

The answer is that she can't think. I have just given a writing assignment in my college class. My charges are to compose a response essay to something we have read. Inevitably, one of them -- I'll call her Tiffany -- asks a dumb question. I know we teachers are supposed to say that there is no such thing as a dumb question, but let's be realistic. "Mr. Smigelski, does my essay have to be five paragraphs long?" The tragedy illustrated by her query is that it actually is not dumb at all, considering the education Tiffany has received in our public schools. Her question, along with her complete lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment in asking it, goes a long way toward helping us understand why she can't write.

Students throughout grade school, middle school, and high school are taught to write the "five-paragraph essay." It is the cornerstone of most developmental writing textbooks I have seen. This is the drill, the formula, the mind-numbing process: In your first paragraph, Tiffany, you must state a thesis, the main idea that you will develop throughout the rest of your essay, and this thesis should be the last sentence in the paragraph. In your second, third, and fourth paragraphs, you must support your thesis with three components of evidence, examples, or illustrations -- one component per paragraph. And in your final paragraph, the fifth, you must present your conclusion, which is a restatement of your thesis in different words along with a little extra tag to give your reader something to ponder further.

Can any bit of instruction be more stilted, unimaginative, and soul-crushing? Don't actually counsel Tiffany on how to think out and articulate a problem or a story; just give her a freakin' formula that can be chalked up on a blackboard in five minutes. When she copies it down in her little notebook, consider the job done. No. The "five-paragraph essay" is an abomination that should be eradicated from every curriculum in the country. Real writers don't count their paragraphs! The next question Tiffany asks is "How many sentences should I put in a paragraph?" As if there is a correct answer to that question as well. Hasn't she ever opened a book, any book? How do you get to be 20 years old and not know that there can be any number of sentences in a paragraph?

Of course, this is indicative of a larger problem, one that permeates our whole society. One of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison, tells a story about a young woman who was asked this question on a TV game show: "What actor, whose name begins with the letter S and who appeared in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, writes a bridge column in a newspaper?" The woman answered, "Naomi Campbell." Ellison rightly remarked that this answer is wrong in so many ways. There is no S in "Naomi Campbell." Ms. Campbell was not even born when Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Tiffany, you are not alone. We have a real problem with education in this nation of ours, and it goes far beyond the prohibition to write more or less than five paragraphs in your essay.

As Professor of Anthropology James Lett pointed out twenty years ago in an excellent article titled "A Field Guide to Critical Thinking," people are taught in our schools what to think, not how to think. Why? Probably because it's easier. Robert Frost once wrote that he took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference. For us teachers to make a difference, we must stop taking the easy way out.

Uh-oh, Tiffany, I think this is my sixth paragraph. I am shunted back to the third grade. Sister Jean Matthew is approaching my desk rather quickly, and she is slapping a ruler against her palm. Do I have time to ... Ouch! The ruler hit my knuckles before I could press the Delete key. Mea culpa. Oh, that's right, Tiffany; you don't know what that means. It's Latin for "My bad." But who learns Latin anymore? It's a dead language, right? Just as dead in our public schools as is the art of teaching kids how to write.