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Excerpt from:  “The Process of Writing, The Formation of Character, and the (Re)Formation of Society,” Perspectives (Winter 1993): 28-42.


It is probably safe to assert that college composition teachers have never had an all-embracing or architectonic rationale for explaining the educational value of writing. This deficiency may help explain why many teachers of writing in the past, at least until the mid-1970s, when composition began to emerge as a disciplinary specialty, taught composition merely as a rite of passage and looked forward to being released from its bondage into the freedom of literature classes. (A few college teachers still take this view.) Twenty-five years ago perhaps the closest thing to an educational theory for teachers of writing was the narrow notion that the function of writing classes was to teach freshman how to write essay examinations and term papers acceptable to college teachers. A slightly more generous view from this same period viewed writing as one form of belles-lettres and located the value of teaching it in the notion, first, that every educated person ought to have a smattering of accomplishment in belles-lettres, and, second, that teaching belles-lettres was simply one the functions of English departments. But these views were hardly well-developed enough to be called rationales, much less theories, and in any case, few people attached positive value to the activity justified by them. Most teachers in English simply wanted to move out of the composition class as soon as possible, a state of affairs that provided no real incentive for the production of positive rationales.


The closest thing that may substitute for an educational theory of the value of writing today is the widespread acceptance of its instrumentalist value. Behind most of the pedagogy in today’s composition classes hangs the instrumentalist notion that writing is useful, that it is a skill students will need proficiency in as they enter professional work after college. Many teachers of writing rely on this notion heavily and urge it on their students both frequently and strenuously. They find this both inviting and easy to do because this “theory,” despite its limited explanatory power, has the obvious advantage of yielding a true prediction: Most professions today do indeed require a fair amount of writing. Teachers are thus justified in offering this fact as a reason for learning to write, and students are becoming more and more receptive to it. They now know that employers may actually view writing skills as important qualifications for employment and promotion.


But for teachers to rely too heavily on this argument is dangerous. Its very simplicity should make us suspicious. We all know that the value of few activities, especially activities as intellectually and socially complicated as writing, can be adequately explained by such simplistic notions as, “It's useful” or “It will help you make money.” Such statements are slogans, not theories. Like assertions in commercials, they are designed to preclude critical response rather than invite it. For writing teachers to offer students slogans about usefulness that preclude critical response is anomalous at best. That the appeal to the particular slogans about usefulness is so widespread and frequent only supports my claim, not that writing teachers are either uninformed or uncaring, but that they have too seldom thought through the connection between writing’s uses and their students’ larger educational objectives. Allowing students, even encouraging them, to think of the value of writing as limited to professional uses is like encouraging them to become knowledgeable about art because it is sometimes a good financial investment. Even though profit can be made from good art and promotions can be gained by good writing, the justification that reduces their value to profits and promotions alone ignores most of what is enduringly significant and interesting about them. “Usefulness” used in this narrow way, then, is not a theory but a cop-out. It is a way of fitting one’s pedagogy to the curve of students’ prejudices instead of challenging those prejudices, a way of avoiding the hard task of thinking through the more complex and subtle reasons for learning how to write, a way of avoiding any consideration of writing’s controversial social, political, and ethical consequences. In addition, two other problems emerge when the slogan of “usefulness” is substituted for a genuine theory of writing’s educational value.