Friday, June 28, 2013

Reading and the Life of a Whale . . .

Not Google Books
Google Images

Professor Verlyn Klinkenborg has written another excellent column for the New York Times, this one on "The Decline and Fall of the English Major" (June 22, 2013), in which he reports on the general inability of college students to write clearly:
In the past few years, I've taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don't.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them -- no.
I know what he means. My own experience confirms it. I don't mean my usual Korean students learning the standard, five-paragraph essay. I mean what I was seeing at Berkeley back in the 1980s: the jargon of theory as 'literary' style. Even of 'conversational' style. I tried to talk to English majors who couldn't get past binary oppositions . . . mine, they meant. Such was the thanks I got for making an attempt to understand them! Yet, I still believe in literature and good writing, and so does Klinkenborg:
What many undergraduates do not know -- and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them -- is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they're undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn't acquire earlier in life. They don't call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing -- the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn't merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it -- no matter how or when it was acquired -- knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.
I was fortunate. I read voraciously as a kid, so writing came naturally to me. Not that I didn't have a lot to learn. I still do. I'll probably begin to finally understand how to write about the time my three-score and ten are nearly up.

If only I were a bowhead whale and had ahead another seven score and ten . . .

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At 8:10 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

My own semi-relevant thoughts on this matter: here.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Those are good words, Kevin, and well said!

As I've often never repeated: "Practice needs the writer."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree good clear writing is becoming a lost, or very hard to find, trait. I am often called upon to write up business proposals and responses to other queries simply because many of my fellow associates do not know how to do so. I also think my reading habits, started at a very young age, has helped me be able to write clearly. One thing I strive to do is to write for the targeted audience, not for myself. Things I think are obvious may not be so to others.


At 9:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, your writing is admirably clear, Jay.

As I've often never repeated: "Needs practice the writer."

Jeffery Hodges

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