Taught to Remove all Thought

Count your ideas. Be careful not to have too many.
| And if a student dares to have four ideas, instead of three? . . . Toss one out. Only three ideas allowed. I’ve seen students fail assignments because they had the wrong numbers. | And they can’t stop writing that way. Many have told me, even in tears, that they try to write differently, but they can’t. | Brainwashing does that. Now, imagine the future.” —Lynn StrattonTaught to Remove all Thought (Floridian)

Is it really this bad? The hated “five paragraph essay” is a device we teach our students so that their biology and economics teachers will be able to find the answers they want the students to produce on essay tests; these professors typically don’t want to see a student’s rough drafts, and typically aren’t intersted in helping the student discover knowledge and take ownership of its expression. (Of course, there are teachers who are exceptions.) Seton Hill University is going through a plan to identify certain courses as “writing intensive,” and restrict the enrollment so that the instrutor will have more time to work with writing. (My colleague Mike Arnzen rather gutsily pointed out that, based on the administration’s guidelines, all English courses should be designated “writing intensive,” and we should therefore reduce the enrollment in all the courses we teach; but I doubt that his suggestion caused more than a passing chuckle from the administration.)

I don’t think there is anything wrong in teaching students to write in a manner that their professors who are not writing experts will appreciate. But I spend a lot of time teaching students who have already mastered the five-paragraph essay to unlearn that form and adapt to the requirements of a news article, a memo, or a web site. Sometimes it’s easier to teach students who don’t have to unlearn their knowledge of the traditional English essay. I’ll have to revisit this whole discussion in January.

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