They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.
That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.
And most people suck at that.
The fault is in several places. Partly with students who learn how to BS their way through a term paper – or even a master’s thesis. Mostly with an academic structure that allows this.
My favorite teacher of all time was my AP English teacher. Sister Jonathan was terrifying, and she yelled at us, and she failed us. We were seniors, used to being smart fish in small ponds. She brought us up short. She let us know that she was not about to settle for our half-assed crap. We hadn’t even realized how half-assed we had been.
Writing in our world today is more important than it has ever been. Thanks to social media, we use writing to communicate in new and different and much more frequent ways than we ever have. We need to know how to do it. This is important.
The way we teach writing has to change with the times. We can’t get rid of important concepts like how to create an outline or develop a logical argument – but we must add to it the idea of how to get your point across quickly, simply, with technical constraints.