This chapter spells out the most fundamental and evident reason for the unsatisfactory cognitive performance of college graduates, a deficiency in the course which, more than any other, is supposed to instill cognitive competency. The course is English composition, frequently called freshman composition. Freshman composition has come to harbor some of the most profound pedagogical problems currently affecting the curriculum. A number of recent critics have focused on this essential course and its fate in the postmodern academy.

College graduates forty years old and older will no doubt remember taking freshman composition. In this course they learned the fundamentals of written exposition, including a review of grammar and syntax and some lessons in informal logic and the rules of evidence. Freshman composition struck many as tedious, and yet it sharpened universally applicable skills that helped them deal meaningfully with material and assignments in other courses and in their later careers.

Such a direct and sensible method of teaching young adults the subtleties of verbal exposition grew out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of years of literacy that mark the Western tradition beginning with the Greeks. It is no coincidence that the Roman writer Quintillian’s Education of an Orator, the classic work of ancient pedagogy, was still in use in the early part of this century. Many other approaches to the inculcation of literacy in use well into this century were directly based on Quintillian. Michigan universities in previous eras upheld that tradition. For example, the 1914 Catalogue of the University of Michigan requires that applicants to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts “be prepared to state intelligently the essential principles of grammar and to explain the syntactical structure of any sentence encountered in his reading.”[32]

Today this has changed. The less-than-satisfactory literacy of today’s college students can be traced, as Heather Mac Donald[33] and Steve Kogan[34] have recently traced it in two articles on the subject, to a set of educational theories that have come to dominate the teaching of reading, writing, and thinking, not only in today’s universities, but in elementary and secondary schools as well. (It is virtually certain that ideas that show up in the academy will soon appear in the K-12 public schools.) The purpose of this section is to establish the link between the disappointing literacy of today’s college students and the prevailing methods of college level writing instruction.

The official position of the Conference for College Composition and Communication (4Cs), the umbrella organization for professional composition teachers, is that “if we can convince our students that spelling, punctuation, and usage are less important than content, we [will] have removed a major obstacle in their developing their ability to write.”[35] To understand the inconsistency of this claim, consider transferring it to another field, to mathematics. If we could convince our students that formal procedures for multiplication and division are less important than making interesting sequences of numbers, we would have removed a major obstacle in their developing their ability to think quantitatively. Of course, we would also have left them incapable of balancing their checkbooks, which in turn would leave them unfit for much of adult life.[36] The 4Cs’ claim, then, defies logic and flouts the very meaning of literacy. Linguistic competency has been redefined by many composition teachers as illiteracy.

Today’s professional composition teachers are not worried by this, judging by their presentations at the 1995 meeting of the Michigan Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, the major organization for Michigan academics. These talks reflect the same values as the 4Cs statement. One paper, cowritten by two freshman composition instructors at Michigan State University, bore the title “Enfleshment.” The authors’ description of their paper illustrates much of what troubles contemporary composition teaching:

The postmodern quest for multiculturalism in recanonization has brought with it the problem of teachers choosing to speak for writers, texts, and students who are—in opposition to the teacher as a raced, classed, and gendered self—Others [sic.]. This opens up the danger that, in making the choice to represent minority literatures, members of the hegemonic order may be perceived as appropriating, rather than representing, those works.

Moreover, the same problematic exists in composition courses where hegemony dictates the voices of minority students and their writings, and must judge the students’ work as valid or flawed. Yet if the teacher, lacking the experience which minority students bring to bear on their discourse, cannot truly speak from that experience as a common ground with the writer, can s/he speak for the writer and the work?

This paper will provide an overview of the current heated debates taking place in the language field over this issue, and provide an outline for a course of ethical self-evaluation that teachers must at all times undergo if they are to avoid continued oppression and appropriation of students and their discourses . . . we will build upon Peter McLaren’s theory of “enfleshment” and argue for constant awareness of the cultural and moral dangers inherent in postmodernism’s pedagogical freedom.[37]

This statement goes far to suggest why contemporary college students write so poorly. It is itself poorly written, containing arcane jargon, and heavily burdened by the rhetoric of victim politics. The otherwise obscure references to “oppression” and “hegemony” are references to the theory that society is divided into an elite minority of “oppressors” and a morally sanctified majority of “victims” and “marginalized persons.” The statement’s attack on societal norms is a common feature of contemporary academic discourse and the sentiments expressed by the authors reflect the focus of composition pedagogy upon a supposed class struggle in American society. Nowhere in their declaration do the authors address the perhaps bland but necessary mission of composition courses—namely, to teach college students how to read and write.

Today the dominant view of freshman composition is that it is an experience in moral liberation rather than a rigorous exercise in the skills of verbal exposition. This view is imposed on the curriculum on campuses nationwide, including the state universities of Michigan, by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and by the regional accreditation agencies that certify English departments, writing programs, and teacher education programs. Heather Mac Donald writes in The Public Interest that

In the field of writing, today's education is not just an irrelevance, it is positively detrimental to a student's development. For years, composition teachers have absorbed the worst strains of both popular and academic culture... The only thing composition teachers are not talking and writing about these days is how to teach students to compose clear, logical prose.[38]

Mac Donald specifically criticizes what ranks today as the almost universally approved approach to the teaching of writing at the college level, and increasingly at the elementary and secondary levels, the so-called process approach to composition.

The process approach was formulated in the mid-1960s by Peter Elbow and a number of other college instructors who identified strongly with campus rebelliousness of the times. It was ratified as the "preferred" approach to composition instruction at a conference at Dartmouth in 1966. Process methodology stresses writing as a form of personal expression and places a stigma on concepts like syntax and grammar. Paradoxically, it also emphasizes writing as a group activity. (See Mac Donald’s comment below.) At the same time, the process approach de-emphasizes the linkage between reading competency on the one hand and writing competency on the other.

The newly issued Standards for the English Language Arts,[39] compiled by the NCTE, says that students "should employ a wide range of strategies as they write" and "apply [a] knowledge of language structure," but never invokes the idea of grammar or stipulates that students must learn before they apply. According to these precepts, the oral language or "dialect" that students bring with them into their freshman year should be validated, not corrected, whether it is adequate to the expression of sophisticated concepts or not. The attempt to get students to write Standard Written English amounts to a violation of their "right" to persist in the loose habits of their spoken version of English.[40]

In the language of the 4Cs which, with the NCTE, is one of the most influential groups of composition teachers nationwide: "The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans."[41]

Of 140 freshman composition syllabi received from all campuses of the state universities of Michigan, only seven appeared to deviate significantly from the process approach.[42] The actual percentage of teachers using a traditional, as opposed to the process, approach might be slightly higher or lower than suggested by this figure because the 140 syllabi do not fully cover the many hundreds of individual sections of this course. Nevertheless, because of the demands made on departments by the NCTE and by associated accreditation agencies, like the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), English departments and writing programs officially favor the process approach or related and derivative approaches, and many impose it. The process approach ahs become part of the academic subculture of English department and writing programs. Its validity, although called into doubt by surveys of college level literacy, is rarely questioned.

In-state journals devoted to the teaching of freshman composition and related courses—The Language Arts Journal of Michigan and The Michigan Literacy Cooperative—make it quite clear that the process approach is the approved approach in the state universities of Michigan, as it is around the nation. The English Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is prominent among English departments nationally in promulgating the process approach and its often politicized offshoots. Essays by writing specialists from UM, Ann Arbor, appear frequently in specialized journals like College English, College Composition and Communication, and Lingua Franca. The papers presented by Michigan writing instructors at conferences, such as the annual meeting of the Michigan Academy, again suggest the currency of process and related pedagogies. Thus the errors of that approach are as entrenched in Michigan writing courses as they are elsewhere in the nation. But this is not the full extent of the problem.

Politically biased or tendentious composition courses tend to graft their ideological content onto a process approach. This can occur quite easily because the process approach incorporated pronounced political assumptions from the beginning. This chapter has already cited the 1970 claim of the 4Cs executive committee that correcting the grammar of student papers is immoral.[43] More recently, in the introduction to a widely used reader for college-level composition courses, Tracy Kidder asserted that

As every graduate student knows, only a fool would try to think or bear witness to events objectively anymore, and only an intellectual crook would claim to have done so. . . . Writers . . . [should] make themselves their main subject matter, since one’s own self is the only subject one can really know.[44]

The dual message, represented by the 4Cs declaration and Kidder’s argument, is that the goal of writing students is to express themselves in casual, nongrammatical prose if that is the way they wish to write and that they should not be taught to treat topics objectively, since objective knowledge is an illusion. Kidder’s claim that an assertion of objective knowledge is the sign of “an intellectual crook” is saddening and antiscientific. The consequence of this philosophy is students deficient in rudimentary knowledge and lacking in skills who have been made cynical about writing by teachers whose main goal seems to be not education but indoctrination.

Steve Kogan, an observor of current trends in composition, writes in a similar vein in an article for the journal Academic Questions that the state of the crucial freshman composition course is “truly disturbing,”[45] saturated as it is by “literary-political theory”[46] and weakened intellectually by the substitution of “jargon for insights.”[47] Indeed, “the very concepts of correctness, vivid writing, and clarity have frequently been dismissed” by contemporary composition specialists, Kogan notes.[48]

The traditional obligation of college level writing instructors was to teach students the rudiments of higher literacy, or simply of literacy. But many such teachers, taking their cue from the NCTE, insist that students must use “their own language,” and leave instruction in basics out of the curriculum. The NCTE Standards refer to students’ “home language,” speak of “dramatiz[ing] cultural frameworks,” and urge instruction in “orchestrating texts.”[49] The same Standards omits any statement in plain language that suggests that students should receive explicit instruction in grammar. Instructors who dissent from these ideas find themselves pressured to conform to them.

As Mac Donald puts it: “There is a basic law at work in current composition theory: As students’ writing gets worse, the critical vocabulary used to assess it grows ever more pompous.”[50] What happens when students as poorly prepared as Mac Donald and Barton and LaPointe describe them enter the job market? The employers canvassed by Scheetz in Recruiting Trends use plain language: They say that their newly hired employees are sorely lacking in communication skills.[51]

Course syllabi and related materials from English departments and writing programs throughout the state universities of Michigan confirm that the situation described by Mac Donald and Kogan is the one that prevails. The process approach is not only officially favored, or even mandated; sometimes alternative approaches are subject to reprimand. At CMU, for example, a widely published and well-liked English professor was preliminarily denied tenure on the grounds that he had not participated in workshops and seminars designed to assimilate composition instructors to the process approach. The denial was overturned at a higher level than the department, but the message was clear. The department made it clear by this action that, as far as it was concerned, other approaches were not an option.[52] In Mac Donald’s evaluation, however, the existing dominant approach to composition, the process approach, “drives out standards,”[53] a claim made all the more plausible by the policies and guidelines of the NCTE and by representative “theoretical” pronouncements such as the conference paper on “Enfleshment.” The dominance of instructional methods in composition which stress self-expression and alleged moral liberation over prose competency goes far in explaining why beginning college students on Michigan campuses do not acquire higher literacy.

Inclusion of trivial course content is part of the explanation, too. Consider this assignment, offered as a model to teaching assistants at CMU: “Watch a TV talk show in which a controversial subject is presented or a provocative personality appears. Many of these shows exist (Oprah, Donahue, Montel, Maury, etc.) and are on TV during the day and late at night.” Having watched Oprah or Montel, teachers are then to direct the students to write a short paper. According to the designer of the assignment, “this paper will be the second assignment in a college 101 composition course and will comprise six 50-minute class periods.”[54] According to this model, two weeks of a fifteen-week semester should be devoted to talking about TV talk shows.

The dereliction of the composition teachers lies at the very heart of today’s deficient undergraduate education. Rather than setting the goal of teaching students how to discover and articulate truths, for example, one freshman composition syllabus from Eastern Michigan University states that “the emphasis will be on exploring new techniques” of writing, with writing defined as “a social [i.e., a group] activity.” Like most freshman composition courses being taught on Michigan campuses today,[55] this one puts the focus on “collaborative small group work,” another designation of which is “peer editing” or sometimes “peer teaching.”

This is what Mac Donald says about “peer editing,” an activity in which students who have not yet gained prose competency are supposed to substitute for the teacher and teach each other what they themselves do not know: “Many of the groups I have observed quickly turned their attention to more compelling matters [than grading each other’s work], like last weekend’s parties or the newest sneakers. No wonder, given the abysmal prose [their own] they are supposed to discuss.”[56] Mac Donald continues

While peer teaching may have value for more experienced student-writers, for the incompetent—which includes not just remedial students but increasing numbers of all incoming students—it is an egregious case of the blind leading the blind. It ignores the reason students are in remedial class in the first place and violates the time-honored principle that one learns to write by reading good, not awful writing.

Students who have been told in their writing class to let their deepest selves loose on the page and not worry about syntax, logic or form have trouble adjusting to their other classes.[57] With its emphasis on personal experience and expression, the process school forgets that the ultimate task of college writing is to teach students how to think.[58]

Many composition specialists who advocate the process approach routinely denounce grammar and correct usage as irrelevant or oppressive. In a collection of papers prepared for use in a CMU course where teaching assistants learn how to teach freshman composition, the following statement appears–“Traditional grammar books were unapologetically designed to instill linguistic habits which . . . were intended to separate those who had ‘made it’ from those who had not, the powerful from the poor.”[59] The same essay refers to the difference between oral and written language as “arbitrary.” Sometimes the claim is heard that Standard Written English is “elitist.” The NCTE Standards, cited earlier, define Standard English as the language “spoken and written by those groups with social, economic, and political power in the United States” and claims that “Standard English is a relative concept.”[60] No doubt a few students are happy to discover that they have already mastered the field of written expression, or that the standard form of English is “arbitrary” and “relative,” but the impression is an illusion which the job market will soon dispel. Meanwhile, these methods effectively deprive students of knowledge which older college graduates learned well enough to take for granted. The teacher of a freshman composition course at Eastern Michigan University writes this note to students in the course syllabus: “Don’t worry about writing perfect papers. I do not have a set standard for what I consider ‘good writing.’”[61]

Another EMU composition teacher gives evidence for Kogan’s claim that the freshman composition course has become a forum for political propaganda: “In this course our writing, reading, and discussions will focus on the differences—cultural, ethnic, sexual, religious, for example—that have shaped our particular sense of identity while frequently creating tensions and conflicts in our relations with other people.”[62]

The reading list for this particular course—which is not atypical—comes from an anthology entitled Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black by the separatist bell hooks (that is how she spells it), and from Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study by Paula S. Rothenberg, director of the New Jersey Project, which aims at the insertion of radical pedagogy into American education. As Lynne Cheney notes in Telling the Truth,[63] Rothenberg’s book presents “essay after essay portraying the United States as mired in racism, sexism, and elitism — not to mention that most hopeless of all states, capitalism.”[64] The majority of current anthologies intended for college level writing courses can accurately be characterized as politically correct. As Kogan writes

The new anthologies . . . turn writing into an industrial process of “text” and “discourse production,” while other favorite terms are taken from the economic-political marketplace of Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, and Paolo Freire, a marketplace not of ideas but of money and “material conditions,” including “commodification” of literary experience, “artistic production and consumption,” [etc.].

At this point, education turns into indoctrination—an indoctrination, in particular, into the evils of capitalism, in which radical pedagogues often describe standard teaching as a reflection of capitalist brutality.[65]

At Central Michigan University, the Department of English Language and Literature offers a master syllabus for “Freshman Composition”[66] which carries the admonition, prefaced by the phrase “research has shown,” that “there is no carryover from classroom instruction in grammar to the students’ writing.” This admonition is simply untrue, but it is consistent with politically motivated dismissal of correct, formal prose as oppressive of or intimidating to students. The admonition appears again in the NCTE Standards.

The position that correctness is relative and that students cannot or should not learn language fundamentals like grammar also excuses instructors from the intense labor necessary to train poorly prepared students how to write so that employers will want to employ them.

The CMU master syllabus accepts what Jay L. Robinson of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, an exponent of “the New Rhetoric,”[67] calls “the myth of basic skills.” Robinson’s argument is that there is no connection between a knowledge of grammar, syntax, and logic, and the communication competency of students. Such a connection is merely declared, Robinson argues, by an oppressive system (capitalism) which wants to maintain a rigid and evil class structure. It leads to the “myth,” according to Robinson, that verbal mastery according to the traditional formula is a prerequisite to higher education generally or to success in life. Thus “the myth of basic skills,” Robinson writes, “deprives students of what they most need [and] those most frequently deprived, of course, are members of racial, social, and linguistic minorities.”[68] Students need affirmation of themselves, Robinson is saying, and because some of them are not competent in basic skills (like grammar and syntax) the imposition of those basic skills as standards harms them.

In reality, what harms all students is the failure to address those educational deficiencies which, if left unaddressed, will leave them ill-prepared for competition in a market whose demands are increasingly technical. As Recruiting Trends reports, the ability to speak and write competently are consistently mentioned by employers as important to the success of new employees at the same time these skills are noticeably absent from their education.[69] Similar complaints circulate on all campuses of the state universities of Michigan, as elsewhere, lodged by faculty in departments outside English who notice the poor reading, writing and thinking skills of students who have completed the writing courses. Recruiting Trends also suggests that graduate level education is increasingly important on the job market. But students who write so poorly that they have difficulty expressing even simple ideas will hardly find themselves prepared for graduate level work.

Arguments like Robinson’s “myth of basic skills” are today the prevalent ideas in the writing programs of the state universities of Michigan. In-state journals devoted to the teaching of writing, such as The Language Arts Journal of Michigan, do not question the premises of radical composition theory.

In contrast to the thinking of the NCTE, 4Cs, and the compositionists is this statement by Peter T. Koper, associate professor of English at Central Michigan University. Koper notes that

The teaching of grammar as part of writing instruction is essential because the dialect of Standard Written English is not the native dialect of any speaker. To learn to write, students must master many new patterns of usage. To repeat in writing the conventions of one’s native dialect is to be cut off from the enormous international culture of which Standard Written English is the ground. Grammar is not elitist. It is rather quintessentially democratizing, the ability to use Standard Written English being the condition for participating in public life in this country and in much of the rest of the world.[70]

Koper’s statement explains in clear terms what the theoreticians of writing instruction seem unwilling or unable to understand, namely, that the teacher’s interest in liberating students is inseparable from his or her obligation to instill basic knowledge—such as the knowledge of grammar—so that such knowledge becomes second nature and permits its possessor to go on to higher, more sophisticated tasks. The process approach and its ideological offshoots tend to strand students at the level which they occupy when they first come to the university. Postmodern models of writing instruction thus yield the tragic effect that students will remain intellectual freshman for the four or five years that it takes them to graduate.

Mac Donald mentions the particularly bad effect that the process approach to writing has on remedial students. Remedial writing instruction is today no more sensible or effective, perhaps much less so, than the ordinary types of writing instruction, as indicated by the syllabus for Central Michigan University’s English 100. Intended, as the syllabus states, “to prepare students for English 101,” CMU’s English 100 nevertheless imposes on its students only “four formal essays from 1 1/2 to 3 pages in length.” So-called “informal” assignments, the syllabus stipulates, “will be written with the intent of approximating Standard Written English” (emphasis added). The syllabus makes no mention of the traditional specifics of language remediation, such as grammar drill or vocabulary building. Designed by advocates of the process approach, it predictably omits these practices.[71]

Regarding the CMU course, it is interesting to note that English 100 was created because of general complaints about student writing. Interviewed in CM Life[72] for April 3, 1996, then Chairman of the English Department Francis Molson was quoted as saying that his faculty “had created English 100 . . . because faculty campus-wide have complained that many freshmen are lacking writing skills.” As with similar courses on other campuses of the state university system, CMU’s remedial English 100 will be given for credit. Giving credit for remedial courses is one of the symptoms of curricular downgrading cited by the NAS report on The Dissolution of General Education. This situation is compounded because the process approach to writing has long since permeated the K-12 public schools and is probably a contributing factor in the poor language skills of incoming freshmen.[73]

Is there nothing good about the process approach? In fact, in its milder forms, it emphasizes some important steps in acquiring mastery of written language. The process approach stresses that writing is above all a conscious activity and it urges careful revision. On the other hand, older and alternative approaches included similar emphases and they also linked mastery of writing with mastery of reading. Older and alternative approaches likewise retained the premise that careful instruction in basics — in grammar — is prerequisite to analytical or creative applications of written language. There are probably some students who learn relevant writing skills in “process” classrooms. Nevertheless, the ascendancy of the process approach is coincident with the increase in complaints about college level literacy.

Another aspect of the freshman composition problem that deserves scrutiny is the universal practice of staffing the course with teaching assistants and non-Ph.D.-holding adjunct faculty, usually hired on a part-time basis and often only a few years older and a bit more educated than those whom they are assigned to teach. This practice is decried by many critics of contemporary higher education. It often means that very young “instructors,” sometimes only four or five years older than the students, are placed in charge of this crucial course.

A sign that freshman composition is taught by graduate students and non-Ph.D.-holding adjunct faculty is that, in the schedule of classes issued semester-by-semester on each of the state universities of Michigan campuses, the word “Staff” appears after the (sometimes) scores of sections of this crucial course. Despite the strong affirmation of the principle of academic freedom within the academy, and despite the universal acknowledgment that freshman composition is a crucial event in the intellectual career of college and university students, there is also a broad and thoroughly contradictory consensus that one does not need to know very much to teach this course and that one should only teach it in the manner approved by the composition teachers.

According to this position, freshman composition can be left to the least academically prepared, least mature, and least intellectually tested teachers, to the teaching assistants or even to the undergraduate “tutors” who are employed at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Apparently, the lack of experience of these novice instructors is supposed to be offset by their adherence to the process approach and their supervision by senior writing faculty.

But as Mac Donald, Kogan, and many others suggest, the composition experts are themselves the problem, insisting as they almost universally do on spurious criteria which are often the opposite of those that constitute real literacy, and advocating jargon-filled theories which have little or nothing to do with the prose competency of their students.