21.9.09

SO SOON OLD, SO LATE SMART. Stanley Fish comes to grips with the failure of inclusive education.
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.
Higher education becomes the remedy of last resort.
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 Blogger search function is still Bloggered. Take it on faith that I've suggested billing the high schools for the remedial classes in math and writing.

I'm pleased that the column shows evidence of Professor Fish's intellectual growth.

First, you must clear your mind of the orthodoxies that have taken hold in the composition world. The main orthodoxy is nicely encapsulated in this resolution adopted in 1974 by the Conference on College Composition and Communication: “We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style.”

Of course, as a matter of law students have the right to any dialect they choose to deploy (although in some small cities where the “English Only” movement has succeeded in the ballot box, linguistic rights have been curtailed). The issue is whether students accorded this right will prosper in a society where norms of speech and writing are enforced not by law but by institutional decorums. If you’re about to be fired because your memos reflect your “own identity and style,” citing the CCC resolution is not going to do you any good.

That's a roundabout way of saying "rendered unemployable by their inclusive education." Thanks. He continues with a corrective to the fads of tenured radicals (if one permits me a mixed metaphor).
Behind the resolution is a theoretical argument. Linguistic forms, it is said, are not God-given; they are the conventional products of social/cultural habit and therefore none of them is naturally superior or uniquely “correct.” It follows (according to this argument) that any claim of correctness is political, a matter of power not of right. “If we teach standardized, handbook grammar as if it is the only ‘correct’ form of grammar, we are teaching in cooperation with a discriminatory power system” (Patricia A. Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom, English Journal, January, 2003).
The discriminatory power system that makes possible fat paychecks to Dunn and Fish and Lindblom, but what the heck.

Statements like this one issue from the mistake of importing a sociological/political analysis of a craft into the teaching of it. It may be true that the standard language is an instrument of power and a device for protecting the status quo, but that very truth is a reason for teaching it to students who are being prepared for entry into the world as it now is rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination — all dialects equal, all habit of speech and writing equally rewarded.

You’re not going to be able to change the world if you are not equipped with the tools that speak to its present condition. You don’t strike a blow against a power structure by making yourself vulnerable to its prejudices. Even as an exercise in political strategy, “having conversations with students about linguistic systems and democratic values” (V.F. Kinloch, “Revisiting the Promise of Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” CCC 57:1, September 2005) strikes me as an unlikely lever for bringing about change; as a strategy for teaching writing, it is a disaster.

And if students infected with the facile egalitarianism of soft multiculturalism declare, “I have a right to my own language,” reply, “Yes , you do, and I am not here to take that language from you; I’m here to teach you another one.” (Who could object to learning a second language?) And then get on with it.

That the student's so-called first language might be a signal of unpreparedness for the adult world isn't an issue, apparently, but recognizing that what Professor Fish calls the prejudices of the power structure, and what I'd interpret as the signals of ability to deal honestly and effectively with others, matter, is progress.

RUNNING EXTRA. At Minding the Campus, Emory's Mark Bauerlein suggests it's extraordinary progress.
Remember that Fish has lived and worked in academia for five decades, with career stops in Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and Duke, roles in noted institutions such as the School of Criticism and Theory, and important defenses against the National Association of Scholars and the Sokal Hoax. In other words, he has remained at the top of an animated and erratic profession, one without objective standards of worth. Keep in mind that in the humanities you are what people say of you. They review you for promotion and your writings for publication, and their word is final. It's a clubby, tribal world filled with people preoccupied with one another. They exclude and include, gossip and congregate.
Read and understand.

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