Years ago when I first began teaching, my headmaster gave me some advice on teaching writing. Quoting the poet and philosopher Walter Kaufmann, he told me that “Writing is thinking in slow motion.” In other words, learning how to write is not something separate from learning how to think. Writing is essential for learning how to think.
My assigned course was quite similar to one of The Great Conversation classes we offer at WHA: a discussion-driven seminar in which we explored great books and wrote limited academic essays on them. The overarching objective was to teach students how to think, not what to think. And I was able to see quite easily how Socratic-style discussion suits that purpose well. But writing? Does composition teach my students how to think?
Over the years, I have noticed a tendency in Socratic seminar courses to lean too heavily upon in-class discussion as the best and perhaps even exclusive way to teach thinking. The line of thought goes something like this: “Sure, students have to form an argument in an essay and that is all well and good, but ah, the seminar! The Socratic Method! These are the true instruments for intellectual empowerment.” Admittedly, I have been guilty of this mindset.
But this mindset is mistaken – badly mistaken.
Here was my first (and most important) clue: while our in-class discussions were often constructive and highly energizing, my students’ essays were typically ill-formed, anemic, or plastic. I couldn’t figure out why. How could my students plumb the depths of justice, selfishness, and virtue in The Great Gatsby or Plato’s Republic yet write such insipid analyses? It was not supposed to be this way.
And then I began to realize the wisdom in my headmaster’s advice: “Writing is thinking in slow motion.” I had made an implicit assumption that writing is primarily (or maybe even entirely) expressive. Writing is about students telling me what they think, right? What I failed to recognize is that writing could also be formative – indeed, that at the middle and high school levels, writing is primarily formative. It is not simply about students telling me what they think, but is more importantly a means by which students actually learn how to think for themselves.
The art of crafting an excellent sentence is not an exercise in some arbitrary skill called writing. It is an exercise in coherent thinking. And this is why grammar and style always count. There is no such thing as an essay that has “good content” but poor grammar and style, because grammar and style are the very means by which the reader grasps the content. The mistake here is to think of the essay as simply expressive. The student has got some ideas, and you as the teacher think you get them for the most part.
But that’s not the point – or at least it’s not the only point. If the ideas are poorly phrased, or the content expressed in broken grammar, then there has been some kind of breakdown in the thinking process. And that breakdown should be the teacher’s primary concern. That the student “had given some thought to the question” is important, but only in the same way that putting gasoline into a car is important. It is necessary, but it is far from enough to get you to your destination. You must drive the car, and you must do so carefully and with a clear sense of direction.
At WHA, we are committed to approaching writing as essential to the main goal in The Great Conversation courses, that of learning how to think. It is, we believe, ideal when writing instruction occurs within the context of careful reading and discussion of great books. We are always seeking ways to improve how we encourage good writing in these courses, particularly at the School of Rhetoric level when the foundational preparation in composition has already been set in the Language Arts courses. We hope to continue that good and faithful work throughout the 2017-18 school year and beyond.
Dr. Tom Vierra teaches courses in The Great Conversation, Logic, and Rhetoric and is Director of Academics for Wilson Hill Academy.