Thursday, September 10, 2009


This discussion between NY Times blogger, Stanley Fish, and his readers is crucial reading for those of you who care about education in America!
by Charlie Leck

Though the title seems to limit the topic of this blog to college education, that it not at all accurate. Much of the discussion, to which I am going to point you, has to do with high school and middle school education as well.

Stanley Fish, who blogs regularly in the NY Times, is one of the most important bloggers in America. I have recommended him to you many times in the past. Fish has some seriously impressive credentials and he does some serious and impressive writing on his blog, Think Again. He currently teaches law at Florida International University in Miami. He is also a dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Chicago. He has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, John Hopkins University and Duke University. He is the author of eleven books, most of which deal with the subject of higher education.

Fish’s extraordinary blog, WHAT SHOULD COLLEGES TEACH?, is in three parts. I got so expansive because of the hundreds of response comments Fish received to the first blog. Most of the comments were polite and offered in the spirit of discussion and honest debate. That led Fish to expand on his first blog in an attempt to answer questions that the commenters had raised.

A great deal of Fish’s argument has to do with the question of teaching both reading and writing in preparation for college and during the college years. If you are a regular reader of my own blog, you know these subjects are important to me.

As someone wise once said: “You can lead a horse to a flowing blog, but you can’t make it read.”

Well, I have led you to the river’s edge and, now, the rest is up to you.

Read Part 1 of What should colleges teach?
Read Part 2 of What should colleges teach?
Read Part 3 of What should colleges teach?

For those of you too timid to delve into the river, I’ll provide some excerpted quotations. If you are particularly interested in the question of how we improve writing skills in students, this will only be a tease to what Fish includes in the three part series.

“A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses?

“I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.” [Opening paragraphs of the blog]


“It probably is neither; curricular alternatives are just not that world-shaking. The philosophical baggage that burdens this debate should be jettisoned and replaced with a more prosaic question: What can a core curriculum do that the proliferation of options and choices cannot? The answer to that question is given early in the report before it moves on to its more polemical pages. An ‘important benefit of a coherent core curriculum is its ability to foster a common conversation among students, connecting them more closely with faculty and with each other.’

“The nice thing about this benefit is that it can be had no matter what the content of the core curriculum is. It could be the classics of western literature and philosophy. It could be science fiction. It could be globalization. It could be anything so long as every student took it. But whatever it is, please let it include a writing course that teaches writing and not everything under the sun. That should be the real core of any curriculum.” [The closing two paragraphs of Part I of Fish’s blog]


“The negative comments on my previous column (there were many positive ones oo) fall neatly into two groups, the attacks on me and the attacks on my ideas.

“Let’s do the ad hominem stuff first. More than a few posters declared that while I talk the talk, I don’t walk the walk. Eric issues a challenge: “So Mr. Fish, how about teaching some comp classes yourself?” English Professor is confident that “we can safely assume that Mr. Fish has never actually taught a composition class himself.”

Ditto anonymous writing instructor: “I’m sure that Fish is paid too dearly for his opinions here and elsewhere to actually teach composition classes.” Maeve asks, “By the way, when’s the last time you taught a freshman composition class?”

“That one’s easy. The last time I taught a regularly scheduled freshman composition class was my last year teaching in a liberal arts college. That was 2004-2005, and in the years before that, when I was the dean, I taught the course every fall. Since 2005, I’ve been a faculty member at a law school where there are no freshmen to teach, so I’ve had to make do with offering a non-credit writing workshop on Mondays; it’s my version of pro bono work and last fall 50 or so students and a few colleagues took advantage of it.

“Earlier in my career I taught composition (sometimes two courses in a semester) for 12 years at the University of California, Berkeley. I was one of two full professors to do so. In 1974, I moved to Johns Hopkins, where there was no writing course because of the (mistaken) assumption that students who were good enough to get into the university didn’t need one. An enterprising graduate student named Pamela Regis enlisted my help in setting up a fledgling program, and by the time I left for Duke in 1985 the program was established and growing.” [The opening paragraph of Part II of Fish’s blog]


Johnny provides a deeper analysis. I wrote, he says, two essays, one about writing skills, the other about conservative efforts to undermine professorial autonomy. They didn’t quite mesh and got in each other’s way.

“He’s right. I should have remembered a fellow columnist’s golden rule — one topic at a time. I’ll try to do better in the future.” [The closing lines of Part II of Fish’s blog]


“By all the evidence, high schools and middle schools are not teaching writing skills in an effective way, if they are teaching them at all. The exception seems to be Catholic schools. More than a few commentators remembered with a mixture of fondness and pain the instruction they received at the hands of severe nuns. And I have found that those students in my classes who do have a grasp of the craft of writing are graduates of parochial schools. (I note parenthetically that in many archdioceses such schools are being closed, not a good omen for those who prize writing.)

“I cannot see, however, why a failure of secondary education relieves college teachers of a responsibility to make up the deficit. Quite the reverse. It is because our students come to us unable to write clean English sentences that we are obligated to supply what they did not receive from their previous teachers. No doubt this obligation constitutes a burden on an already overworked labor force, but (and this is one of those times a cliché can acquire renewed force), somebody has to do it.

“The question of the relationship of reading and learning to write is more complicated. Classical rhetoricians preached the virtue of imitation; students were presented with sentences from the work of great authors and asked to reproduce their form with a different content. I like this exercise because its emphasis is so obviously formal.

“But what about just doing a lot of reading and hoping that by passing your eyes over many pages you will learn how to write through osmosis? I’m not so sure. If to wide reading were added daily dinner-table discussions of the sophistication and wit found in many 18th and 19th century novels, I might be more sanguine. And if your experience with words were also to include training in public speaking and debate (itself a matter of becoming practiced in forms), I might say, O.K., you probably don’t need a form-based composition course. Unfortunately, however, reading is not the favorite pastime of today’s youth and debate societies don’t have the cache they once did; so my insistence that a narrowly focused writing course be required for everyone stands.” [Paragraphs from Part III of Fish’s blog]


“You have to start with a simple but deep understanding of the game, which for my purposes is the game of writing sentences. So it makes sense to begin with the question, What is a sentence anyway? My answer has two parts: (1) A sentence is an organization of items in the world. (2) A sentence is a structure of logical relationships.

“The second part tells you what kind of organization a sentence is, a logical one, and in order to pinpoint what the components of that logic are, I put a simple sentence on the table, something like “John hit the ball” or “Jane likes cake.” I spend an entire week on sentences like these (which are easily comprehended by students of any
background), asking students to generate them, getting them to see the structure of relationships that makes them all the same on a formal level, getting them to see that the motor of meaning production is form, not content.

“Once they see that — and it is an indispensable lesson — they are ready to explore, generate and practice with the other forms that organize the world’s items in increasingly complicated ways. Basically, there is only one thing to be learned, that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships; everything else follows.” [Paragraphs from Part III of Fish’s blog]

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