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The Need for Writing in an Oral Culture


Chicago -- Like all teachers, even at our most elite colleges, I am always amazed at how poorly students write. People who are bright, funny and make apt remarks in class seem to suffer

brainlock when they must organize their thoughts on paper.

It is the proper sequence from one remark to another that they have trouble creating. They are no longer scattering comments, isolated things, C and A and B, but trying to find the right order, why A should precede B, why C should follow B. What makes for this order, and how are A and B and C affected by it, even changed by being put in that sequence?

Writing is not just one of many skills, one that can be dispensed with in people who are advancing into the upper levels of education. It is almost the only way to order one's thoughts with rigor.

We are told that this is an oral culture, that a good ear and a ready tongue are the proper receiver and dispenser of information, judgment and wisdom in our day. Well, the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were also oral societies, where public debate and speeches were the principal media of information.

There were no newspapers in Athens. Every citizen had to argue his own case, whether as prosecutor or defender, before the mass tribunals that served as courts -- and most citizens ended up, for one reason or another, before those tribunals. Yet Demosthenes and the other great orators wrote their speeches and memorized them, instead of improvising, even in that oral culture.

Cicero's great dialogue, "On Oratory," is surprisingly radical in much of its advice to people who would become good speakers. He rejects the classical handbooks, the rules, the tricks, the accepted How to Become a Speaker in Six Easy Lessons.

He comes up with a surprising answer to the question how great orators are formed. He says the orator must write constantly, compare his style with that of others, translate poetry into prose, take others' arguments and rephrase them more tightly.

The best presidential speech writer in our nation, Abraham Lincoln, worked on his writing skills almost compulsively, year after year, perfecting his style.

Why do our students write so poorly? The easy answer is the one most often proposed: television. But that lets off the hook our school system, which does not make children write early enough or often enough. Experiments have shown how creative children can be at writing descriptions, poems, personal statements, from very early ages.

But a great barrier stands in the way of this: Teaching writing is perhaps the most labor-intensive activity in all of education. It can take much more time and effort to untangle an awkward paragraph, correct its errors, suggest its improvement, than it did to write it.

The 19th-century educational system had a far smaller student pool to be dealt with. Far fewer students went to college, or even to high school, even among those who entered grade schools. Neither of my parents went to college, and my mother did not finish high school. They went to public schools when the education there was thought to be the end as well as the beginning of the process. They had to write sentences and paragraphs that would be scrutinized and criticized thoroughly.

Now, people think that writing will be picked up along the way, somehow, as students rise higher and higher into our educational system. Yet even at the best colleges, remedial writing courses are customary, often required, in the first year. In fact, teachers in all subjects are involved in remedial writing exercises as they try to correct and improve what is being turned in as history papers, scientific descriptions, business proposals.

The expenditure of large amounts of time (which means money) on writing at the early stages can look tremendously wasteful. But the real waste of time and money comes later. Educational reform is easy to talk of in terms of updating, and computers and new tricks. But certain things cannot be replaced.

Cicero had it right. If one is to learn to think and to speak, one simply has to write. That is a hard truth for teachers. But that does not make it any less true.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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