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No Wonder I Hated English Classes January 6, 2011

Posted by federalist in Education, Language.
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As soon as the study of “English” in school graduated from Reading, Spelling, and Writing to Literature, Grammar, and Composition I began to hate it. At some point after taking an early course from the Yale English department I recognized that my irritation stemmed from the conflation of these three separate subjects by teachers who were themselves only amateur writers. I didn’t realize how bad it really was until I came across this essay by Geoffrey Pullum lambasting the supposed bible of grammar, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Yes, even the textbooks are wrong!

No wonder I struggled with grammar at the same time I was acing geometry, algebra, and computer programming: Complete rules of English grammar are too complicated for non-technical teachers, and so for generations they have resorted to oversimplification and then tried to ignore the vast exceptions and holes in their theories. I was baffled by a grammar that “didn’t compute,” but they wrote the tests, so I lost and just moved on. (When I later dabbled in college-level Linguistics, where they don’t take shortcuts, I found it both engaging and facile.)

If I have become a good writer it has not been thanks to any English teacher. Composition should be taught along with Rhetoric — a sister subject that the education establishment left at the side of a road sometime in the twentieth century. Instead English departments have tied composition to literature, perhaps because it doesn’t seem scholastic enough to simply read and discuss great literature. No, a student must then go and carry on a discussion with himself for x number of pages, and his grade is determined by that essay. If he is not inspired to expound upon a particular book it reflects not on the book or the teacher but supposedly on his own writing skills. And here it gets even more confusing: Occasionally classes would undertake an exercise wherein students exchanged papers and I would get to read the final draft of someone else in the class. I don’t remember if I ever got a full “A” in an English class, but I did read papers of students who were getting full “A”s. And they were riddled with grammatical errors. I never did figure out what it takes to get an A on an English paper, but I did learn that English teachers value something that they couldn’t teach me.

Fortunately I discovered sometime in high school that I love to write, and that I do so easily and naturally when I have something to say. I once spent over 20 hours trying to draft an essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, one of half a dozen major works we were covering in one semester of an English class. Finally I went to the teacher with many pages of dense notes and drafts, threw up my hands, and asked how a student could possibly be expected to fully read the book in the few allotted weeks, much less put together a short essay making anything other than banal observations about such a work. The teacher was sympathetic to my pleas, and apparently sufficiently impressed by my effort to give my final thousand-word essay an A-. In contrast, when I took a Spanish Composition course to satisfy my language requirement I was often free to pick my topics, so I could focus on writing instead of contriving. I regularly irked the other students by bringing in essays that were 2-3 times the assigned length and that were frequently excerpted as model examples for the class.

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