So I spent all day Tuesday explaining to fifty young men and women what a thesis statement is. Explaining how argumentation differs from exposition. Explaining what is special about a thesis statement for an argument. Explaining how an extended definition is a kind of argument.
Flunking half of them, it must be said, does get their attention. Some of them actually seemed to be listening this time. One or two of them even went so far as to ask an occasional question.
This is what I find most discouraging about teaching composition: our freshmen are not ready for college-level work. This is as true in the university (where I taught for 10 years) as it is in the community college. University freshmen by and large are little stronger in this department than junior college freshmen, and even the juniors and seniors I taught at GDU were not much improved.
What is the point? Why am I wasting my breath? If they haven’t learned this grade-school stuff by the time they graduate from high school, they’re never going to learn it.
And it’s not nuclear physics. If they can’t manage something as simple as organizing a 2½-page essay, how on earth do they learn more complex tasks, like math and science?
Well, of course, the answer is that they don’t.
Do you have any idea how many of these people are headed for jobs in health care? That’s right. One of these days a person who is so dimly educated he can’t even compose a coherent paragraph will be jabbing you with needles, X-raying you, running you through an MRI machine, cleaning your teeth with sharp instruments, trying to get you to breathe after an asthma attack or anaesthesia, attending your own or your daughter’s childbirth, assisting your surgeon in an operating room.
It’s easy to see how rhet-comp people have become so frustrated with this routine that they’ve concluded it doesn’t do any good to teach the principles of grammar and style. One reason our students write as if they grew up in a cave with no writing implements is that they’re no longer taught how to use the basic tools of writing. As a carpenter will create a crooked table if she doesn’t know how to use a hammer and a screwdriver, so a writer creates an ungainly squib when he doesn’t know how to use words and sentences. In my experience, it is not true that learners cannot apply these tools to their writing; teach them what the tools are and how to use them, and they will use them.
The only conclusion one can make is that these deficits have something to do with the culture of the American public school system. Start with the fact that a degree in education is widely regarded as the easiest, most mickeymouse program you can take in college, then move on to the fact that today’s teachers often function more as social workers than as educators, and then take a look at the way recent high-school graduates behave in the classroom, and you get a picture of what must be going on. In my classes, I have students who open computers and sit there chatting to each other while I’m speaking. Kids huddle in the back and yak while class proceeds. The only way you can get them to quit it, literally, is to throw them out of the classroom.
And I’ve been known to do that.
In faculty meetings, colleagues regularly complain about the same behavior in their classrooms, so evidently it’s not something I personally bring on. It apparently is so commonplace that students expect to be allowed to carry on conversations throughout all their classes.
This suggests they get away with it routinely in the high-school classroom.
What happens in the college classroom is the aftermath of what students have experienced in the K-12 system. And when 80 or 90 percent of our classmates seem unable to function in a college classroom, that should tell us that the K-12 system itself is largely nonfunctional.