01/16/2014 10:55 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

College Composition As Critical Thinking

When college costs as much as it does, one of the questions we hear -- and not just from students with papers due the next morning -- is, "Do we still need Freshman English"?

Everyone agrees you need to learn how to write well, but there is a movement to get rid of composition, to fold it into "content courses" in students' majors or their other core requirements. That's a bad idea.

The universal first-year writing course matters because college composition is ultimately a critical thinking class. Almost everyone dreads it -- trust me, I've seen enough faces on the first day of the semester -- but most walk away from it pleasantly surprised. When it goes well, it leaves students with new strategies to work through tricky questions. It leaves them better thinkers, and it's a central part of what makes a college education valuable.

I'm a little sly about the goal of developing critical thinking, though. It's in my syllabus, but it comes out in class when I talk about how to organize writing. Organizing ideas is a form of thinking, of course, but I don't say that out loud until later when, I hope, my students have figured it out for themselves.

College writing -- at least as I teach it -- shifts from a focus on sentences to a focus on paragraphs. I ask students to move from clarifying thoughts to clarifying ideas. There's an art to writing good sentences, an art we teach more directly in other writing classes, and that we expect our students to have studied in high school. But good writing turns more on an ability to connect those sentences than on writing them in the first place.

I tell students that if they learned in elementary school that a sentence is a complete thought, then they should learn in college that a paragraph is a complete idea. The difference is that a sentence captures what you're already thinking; it's a breath-sized articulation. A paragraph says what you're trying to think; it's about what you're reaching for rather than what you already know. It takes a handful of sentences -- five to eight in typical college writing -- and some steady breathing to get across an idea.

Simply put, college composition teaches students to use writing to clarify their thinking. The best papers I get -- and I do get a lot of good ones -- grow from a vague first response into a clear and thoughtful reaction. They're a pleasure to read not just because they say worthwhile things but because they reveal the process behind composition: you can see the mind of the writer move from suspecting something new to naming it.

We call such writing "essays," and the word comes from the French for "attempts" or "experiments." The great French writer Michel de Montaigne coined the term for his own 16th century efforts at answering the same question over and over again: "What do I already know?"

I have heard educators describe third grade as the point when students move from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." That is, they can read well enough to begin teaching themselves, to explore things their parents and teachers haven't told them. In the same way, good college writers move from reporting what they already know to thinking through words. They learn to explore the insights they get when their experience collides with what their new research shows them.

I like to think of such writing as the equivalent of upgrading the microprocessor of your mind. Good writers use words not to tell us what they've already figured out but to explore their suspicions. As a result, they enlarge their capacity for original thinking.

Good writers expand the canvas of their imaginations, and that makes them more capable in whatever careers they eventually pursue.

College composition may not turn every student into a polished wordsmith, but we have to try. We have to take a semester -- and ideally two -- to help young people discover not just what they can do as writers but what their writing can do for them. That's a key part of the bargain we make when we invite students into our classrooms, and it's central in students discovering themselves. It's an expensive process, in money and in time, but it's one that can pay huge dividends in life.