“Even in college honors classes, the quality of written expression was almost uniformly pathetic.”

From a Washington Post column by Purdue University president Mitch Daniels headlined “Kids can’t write: Parents, this is your chance to help.”:

Finding myself employed in higher education in late career, I undertook to teach a course, one that I have subsequently offered for several years. As I expected, I learned more than my students probably did, especially about how much effort it takes to construct a useful curriculum, convey essential content and try to excite young minds to pursue that content further.

But by far the lesson that hit me hardest was that the kids can’t write. Even in a course fully subscribed by students from our Honors College, a class full of future doctors, business executives, computer engineers and the like, the quality of written expression was almost uniformly — sorry to choose this word — pathetic.

In higher-ed circles, this is now a very old topic. Now and then, one can find an “it’s not really so bad” analysis, but the vast weight of the literature comes to the same conclusion I did when grading papers and final exams: Even our best and brightest all too often don’t write like it.

Some will claim that a digital, electronic world has obsoleted written communication. They’re not talking to the world’s employers, who are expressing a renewed appreciation for the value of the humanities, and more and more concern about the inability of new hires to communicate well, either orally or especially in writing. In a 2018 national survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, written communication skills were at the top of the list of qualities prized by today’s businesses. . . .

And the amount of writing assigned in today’s high schools has dwindled dramatically. Most recently, colleges of education, including the one at the university I lead, are reporting that tomorrow’s teachers will struggle to teach good writing because their own writing skills are so weak.

The thought occurs that, unlike much else about a modern youngster’s education, home remedies might be possible — especially when the coronavirus has corralled so many students at home. Mom or Dad might not be able to solve that differential equation or explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but they could give writing assignments of their own. A journal of the family vacation, a report on a book the family read together, an actual letter (on actual paper!) written to Grandma or Uncle Russ might produce more composition practice than all of next semester.

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