Looking for another useful shut-in activity? How about one that helps your child while addressing a serious national shortcoming, the sorry ineptness of young Americans at writing the English language? Try being an amateur Mrs. Heckle.
She was that teacher you never forget. Tough, uncompromising, as intimidating as a grizzly, though she weighed barely a hundred pounds. Nina Heckle taught us ninth-grade English the way I imagine Vince Lombardi taught football. We were convinced the principal had dialed Hollywood: “Hi, Central Casting, can you send me the classic severe English teacher? You know … bun hairdo, half glasses, perpetual frown?” Wherever Mrs. Heckle (an obvious Hollywood stage name, we thought) came from, we were lucky to be assigned to her class.
There was reading, lots of it, and nothing fluffy or trendy on the list. There were grammar drills, and sentence diagramming, and vocabulary quizzes. But most of all, there was writing. Book reports, essays, short stories, our juvenile attempts at poetry.
When she returned our homework submissions, there were corrections all over them. Even the best efforts, the rare A’s, would come back with constructive suggestions for clearer syntax or a brighter metaphor. And woe to the author of an incomplete sentence, a mistake in punctuation or, terror of terrors, a misspelled word.
As memorable as Mrs. Heckle was, my classmates and I would have turned out to be passable writers even if we’d missed her. At our fine, late-1960s public high school, we encountered writing assignments, and their rigorous correction, in virtually every class that wasn’t math.
Watching my four daughters move through high school, I knew things had changed. But that still didn’t prepare me for firsthand exposure to the truly sad state of the English language in the hands of today’s students—even postsecondary students, and even the most otherwise talented of those.
Finding myself employed in higher education in late career, I undertook to teach a course, one I have subsequently offered for several years. As I expected, I learned more than my students probably did, especially about how much effort it takes to construct a useful curriculum, convey essential content and try to excite young minds to pursue that content further.
But by far the lesson that hit me hardest was that the kids can’t write. Even in a course fully subscribed by students from our Honors College, a class full of future doctors, business executives, computer engineers and the like, the quality of written expression was almost uniformly—sorry to choose this word—pathetic.
In higher-ed circles, this is now a very old topic. Now and then, one can find an “it’s not really so bad” analysis, but the vast weight of the literature comes to the same conclusion I did when grading papers and final exams: Even our best and brightest all too often don’t write like it.
Some will claim that a digital, electronic world has obsoleted written communication. They’re not talking to the world’s employers, who are expressing a renewed appreciation for the value of the humanities, and more and more concern about the inability of new hires to communicate well, either orally or especially in writing. In a 2018 national survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, written communication skills were at the top of the list of qualities prized by today’s businesses.
As in other respects, we must keep trying to do better at the K-12 level, but we can’t count on that system to fix the problem. As the American Psychological Association reported on a study of adolescents’ media use from 1976 to 2016, students are reading less and less, of less and less rigorous material. It’s pretty hard to write excellently if you haven’t read any excellent writing.
And the amount of writing assigned in today’s high schools has dwindled dramatically. Most recently, colleges of education, including the one at the university I lead, are reporting that tomorrow’s teachers will struggle to teach good writing because their own writing skills are so weak.
The thought occurs that, unlike much else about a modern youngster’s education, home remedies might be possible—especially when the coronavirus has corralled so many students at home. Mom or Dad might not be able to solve that differential equation or explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but they could give writing assignments of their own. A journal of the family vacation, a report on a book the family read together, an actual letter (on actual paper!) written to Grandma or Uncle Russ might produce more composition practice than all of next semester.
Because all the evidence says we just don’t have many Nina Heckles anymore.
Mrs. Heckle, I feel you watching, and I know “obsoleted,” above, was a somewhat clumsy usage. But it is a legitimate transitive verb: I looked it up.•
Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former Indiana governor.