I often bemoan the fact that writing is becoming a lost art. We need to look no further than the prime-time speech that Melania Trump delivered at the Republican National Convention this week.
Mrs. Trump’s speech was supposed to convince us to vote for her husband Donald for president of the United States. Instead, we only remember the large section of her speech that was pulled almost verbatim from the 2008 convention speech given by Michelle Obama.
The Trump campaign’s first response was to deny the plagiarism and insist that Mrs. Trump wrote the speech herself. Then it was the speechwriter’s fault. Then the speechwriter resigned, but Donald Trump refused to accept her resignation for the “mistake.”
Either Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz masterminded this whole thing!
Saving Students the Frustration and Embarrassment
Of course plagiarism is unethical, but as a former writing teacher, I’ve found that copying other people’s work is not often rooted in deceit.
Writing is perhaps the most intensive cognitive activity known to man, and critical thinking skills are inextricably tied to the quality of the work. In other words, shallow thinking almost always produces substandard writing. Therefore, when writers resort to stealing text from other writers, it’s often an act of desperation to address a lack of depth or understanding of the subject matter.
The political implications of the plagiarized Melania Trump speech have obscured a real problem in schools and working life: Many Americans don’t receive quality writing instruction and don’t learn guidelines as to providing proper source attribution. Teachers have told me that emojis and text slang are showing up in their students’ research essays. College students who have mastered how to express every thought in 140 characters or less are decrying standard five-paragraph essays as way too long.
Addressing the writing problem in K-12 education will save our students frustration and embarrassment when they enter corporate America and have to write in professional settings.
When I taught my first classroom in 2004, for example, teaching kids how to write in cursive was part of my school’s third grade curriculum. Beyond its calligraphic beauty, research shows that writing in cursive helps develop student’s brain function and motor skills.
Now, cursive is a thing of the past for most schools. Most high school students have never learned to read or write cursive text. In fact, when many of my eighth-grade students graduated, they could not even sign their names properly—their signatures were written in print.
The writing process has been de-emphasized in schools just as much as handwriting instruction has. More and more state standardized tests have also dropped essay writing sections to save money since the scoring of essays require actual people, not Scantron machines.
At my own school, I watched the decline in value of writing as a standalone course. A reading and writing class was merged into one course called “English/Language Arts” and given an extra 15 minutes a day. Reading comprehension dominated the course since reading is a tested subject, whereas writing is not.
Plus, selective enrollment high schools in Chicago require students’ reading grades on applications, not writing grades.
Worse, both the ACT and SAT make their writing tests optional. Some colleges and universities require applicants to take the writing test for admission, while others do not. How a student writes is a much more valuable, authentic display of who they are and how they think than their scores on a multiple choice assessment.
Sometimes, students possess the ability to make a strong case in writing but they don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical skills needed to pull it off. I know smart, highly educated professionals who lament the fact that they never learned the technical rules of writing in school. That was true for me.
Carole Agus, an old school, hard-nosed reporter, was my first professor when I was getting my master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She told me that I was one of the best reporters that she had ever taught, but that my grammar was “criminal.” She said, “I can’t believe your high school let you graduate with grammar so bad.”
Ouch. I cried. I knew my grammar wasn’t perfect, but it was far from terrible. None of my undergraduate English professors or magazine editors at work seemed as bothered by it as much as Professor Agus, who insisted that I write so clean that no one could ever justify denying me a journalism job. She sent me to an on-campus tutor for help. The tutoring was worth it—just look at me now!
It’s time for schools to treat writing with the same respect and attention that reading and math receives. Yes, feelings will inevitably get hurt when one’s writing is constructively critiqued, but that’s the only way to right the writing crisis in America.