Good writing inseparable from the practice of democracy

Good writing inseparable from the practice of democracy

Bob Kerrey

Editor’s Note: Bob Kerrey recently agreed to lead a five-year effort to elevate the teaching of writing after a College Board-sponsored study indicated that attention to the subject has decreased dramatically in American schools.

The value of good writing has increased. Far from being killed by television or the Internet, good writing is a skill that rewards those who have made the daffy effort to build and sustain their writing skills. They are more employable, more likely to take pleasure from the reading of others, and more frequently at the center of political power.

Why, then, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have 75 percent of U.S. high school seniors never received a writing assignment in their history or social studies classes? Why is a senior research project a rare and endangered species? Why did the National Commission of Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, funded by the College Board, find that writing is the forgotten “R”?

According to the National Writing Commission, part of the problem is that writing is time-consuming for students and their teachers. Analyzing and grading writing can be difficult for teachers who are already overburdened with their various education and non-education assignments.

One negative result is that students are not given a clear and consistent message that writing is as important as reading and mathematics. Nor have adult leaders in business, education, and politics placed a proper emphasis on writing as an essential skill. Too often, writing is seen as a necessity only for those who choose professional, artistic careers. Or, of course, journalism.

To write, a student must be willing to run the risk of being judged. Grammar, style, and content can become subject to criticism or even ridicule. This may be the greatest barrier of all to an aspiring writer, re-enforcing a powerful instinct to conclude that writing just isn’t important enough to take the time to do it.

The evidence is all around and overwhelming that such an instinct is wrong. This is the economic age in which knowledge workers and writing skills are more highly prized by employers than ever before. A strong back is not nearly as important as a strong knack for written communication. Students who have mastered demanding technical skills may find their chances for a job undercut by their failure to write a compelling application letter, or even a coherent one. Once they are on the job, their prospects for advancement may fall victim to their lack of writing skills.

But writing does not just improve take-home pay. It can give real pleasure. At its best, it enchants and enlightens us, enriching our spiritual lives. It helps us to understand who we are and to acquire a sense of purpose. Writers like Willa Cather and Winston Churchill have moved us to tears and moved us to act. Authors like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John McCain have shaped our society with the clarity and elegance of their words.

Most important of all: Effective writing is an instrument of citizenship as well as scholarship. The oxygen of democracy is free expression. We will suffocate our democracy if our schools do not prepare young men and women to write a clear and persuasive letter. Our political system will narrow; power will shift to those with both the money and the understanding that when it comes time to write a law, words matter.

Written appeals to our government are vital to the health and responsiveness of our political system. When our students leave school with an aversion to writing or with no more than a limited capacity to write, we are building a nation of spectators, disengaged from the process and increasingly cynical.

This is a troubling paradox. Our nation owes so much to writing, but it pays so little homage to the skills needed to generate that writing. The Founders of our nation were writers of the letters and pamphlets containing the ideas that were the soil from which our Declaration of Independence and Constitution grew. The men who fought for freedom were the same men who wrote the words that stir us to this day: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”

When the war was over and it was time to write a document describing the powers of their government, the ones who signed the document were the ones who wrote it. They did not assign the work to lawyers or staff or consultants. These men–inspired themselves by the poetry, verse, and prose of others–gave freedom a written course to follow.

The good news for us is that far from weakening entirely, the muscles that generate good writing have not disappeared from the American scene. Quite the contrary. There is extremely good evidence to suggest that we are writing better and more than ever before. The problem is that the economic, social, and political needs for good writers have grown at least as fast.

The National Writing Commission, whose efforts I will lead for the next five years, does not see a crisis. We see a crying need to tell our children how valuable good writing is. We see an opportunity to encourage all Americans to find the value, pleasure, and power that come from good writing. The commission found hundreds of good efforts already in existence that need encouragement and support. In the words of our report, “writing is best understood as a complex intellectual activity that requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valid and accurate distinctions.”

This year, the 227th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the Writing Commission is providing a copy of our first annual report to Congress. The intent was to enclose with the report a letter describing our hope and belief that good writing begins at home–just as good reading does. We believe it continues in our schools and colleges, communities, and places of work.

Bob Kerrey served two terms in the U.S. Senate, ran for president in 1992, and currently heads the New School University in New York City. E-mail kerreyb@newschool.edu

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Conference of Editorial Writers

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