Mechanical Writing

By Crispin Sartwell

The other day our sixteen-year-old son, struggling with his homework, asked his mother this question: "Do you know how many paragraphs an American History essay is supposed to have?"

The answer, of course, is one. Or seven. Or seven hundred.

Once I was working with him on an essay on slavery and the Constitution. We needed exactly three arguments, he told me, and he seemed to think this somehow corresponded to reality: that in virtue of the essay form, there were, in fact, exactly three arguments to the effect that Constitution countenanced slavery, though he did not know yet what they might be.

The teaching of writing as a machine procedure gains momentum by the day. In Indiana this year, the junior-year English essay will be graded by computer.

Today''s educational establishment is making actual illiteracy look good, like an act of humanity and rebellion. Writing, which might nurture and give shape to thought, is instead being used to pound it into a powder and then reconstitute it into gruel.

The thoroughly modern grade-A public school prose style is not creative or interesting enough even to be wrong. The people who create and enforce the templates are, not to put too fine a point on it, people without understanding or imagination, lobotomized weasels for whom any effort of thought exceeds their strength.

And they are trying to produce whole generations in their image.

I teach these kids when they reach college. I try to tell them that the idea that there is some specifiable way to write an essay (introduction, body, conclusion, with a particular structure of paragraphs in the body, and a particular structure of sentences in each paragraph) is just some hooha made up by a little bureaucrat in 1987. This makes them profoundly nervous.

I am not particularly concerned about the youth of today, and if the world goes to hell I don''t really care. But I do care about coming to the middle of a semester and reading 35 5-page papers that seem to have been written by boulders.

If it is too difficult to teach or assess writing by actual human standards, then it is too difficult to teach or assess writing.

The SAT and ACT tests are adding essay sections. This seems like a good idea, since the ability to regurgitate little bits of information mechanically is not education. But the effect is that we''re going to make writing into multiple choice, and it will not surprise you to hear that the SAT and ACT will be experimenting with computer grading. That is a reductio ad absurdum of the entire idea of learning; if this is knowledge, then truth and beauty reside only in ignorance.

Obviously, if your no child left behind funds depend on your test scores, you will teach your kids to write essays that move a computer to tears. But the idea that computers can grade essays in the first place is one that could only have occurred to people without guts or imagination, people who have no idea how to write or how to read, people whose existence is redundant and hence indefensible: in short, the people who administer the education of our children.

People like this had better start leaving our children behind.

Feed that into your computer, fuckhead.

Crispin Sartwell teaches political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.