In Defense of Written Composition

At the Daily Beast, John McWhorter has an article that has as its primary subjects a) TV personality Kim Kardashian, b) Harvard professor Cornel West, and c) the future of the written word. Quite the variety, to say the least. But the article raises some important issues on how enthusiastically written and edited English should be taught in education.

I’ll betray some spoilers: Ms. Kardashian tweeted a punctuationally curious but innocuous message commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the genocide by the Turks against the Armenians. (“Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!”) The Internet reacted predictably. Cornel West appears in the article as an academic rock star in the broadcast media reacting to criticism that despite his fame, it has been a long time since he has actually produced any written academic work:

The takeaway point in Michael Eric Dyson’s notorious takedown of West is not Dyson’s almost curiously comprehensive filleting of West’s person and accomplishments. Rather, Dyson lays down that Cornel West is a revered public intellectual who has not written academic books in a quarter-century now, does not write published refereed academic articles, and overall does not like writing and does as little of it as possible. His foundational trade book Race Matters is now over 20 years old. During West’s famous clash with then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers when the latter questioned West’s academic achievements of late, West responded that he was in fact at work on three academic books. Fifteen years later, those books do not exist, and it’s fair to say that they are not forthcoming. Writing is not what West does.

Well, then, how do smart people communicate their smart ideas to the world beyond their contemporaries? Audibly, apparently:

I have what I will title a modest proposal, although many will consider it less modest than insane coming from an academic and writer. Let’s stop pretending that the way Kim Kardashian tweets and the way so many people write is a problem that can be fixed. Who among us imagines that public schools will really go back to teaching sentence structure and prose style as strictly as in the old days? After all, today’s crop of teachers below a certain age never even knew the America where language arts were taught that way. The horse is out of the barn. Let’s consider that we are seeing a natural movement towards a society in which language is more oral—or in the case of texting, oral-style—where written prose occupies a much smaller space than it used to.

As such—might we stop pretending that ordinary people need to be able to write on a level higher than functional?

This is where I politely object. Communicating audibly, or its social media equivalents, has its virtue in immediacy, the linguistic equivalent to a viral video. But when the complicated matters of life are at issue, more work is needed to communicate those thoughts. This task isn’t just for the professional writer or academic. Ordinary people lead lives that can get difficult for whatever reason: the disintegration of a first marriage, the loss of a loved one, communicating to a son or daughter their emotions when they leave home. There are situations in life that require more thought than what’s off the top of your head at a particular moment. Writing long form can also be a cathartic exercise, a way to externalize and work through difficult emotions. Instead of inchoate feelings and incomplete skits to rehearse as revenge for some wrong done to you, expressing the events and feelings in the written word, with adherence to rules that allow for complex thoughts to be expressed outside the mind, will make it real and, more importantly, something to be examined externally. For instance, after re-reading the last few sentences, I found that all of my defenses of the written word are therapeutic rather than functional. Yes, one can probably fill out the right forms and applications in life without high skills in writing. But I still think this skill is essential in the education of a mentally and emotionally healthy human being. At least give them the idea and instruction on how to keep a good diary.

I also wouldn’t rely on non-written technologies to put preserve ideas for posterity. One example is the cult of Mithra. Mithra was an ancient Persian deity who gained his own cult in Roman society around the time of Christ. With it being a mystery cult, promising secret knowledge, they didn’t bother with written texts giving it all away:

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a “mystery” cult, which is to say that its members kept the the liturgy and activities of the cult secret, and more importantly, that they had to participate in an initiation ceremony to become members of the cult. As a result, there is no surviving central text of Mithraism analogous to the Christian Bible, and there is no intelligible text which describes the liturgy. Whether such texts ever existed is unknown, but doubtful. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). . . .

We surmise from the structure of mithraea and from paintings which are preserved in certain mithraea that mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. The details of the liturgy are uncertain, but it is worth noting that most mithraea have room for only thirty to forty members, and only a few are so large that a bull could actually be sacrificed inside.

The point being, depending on how the rubble bounces when it all ends, the later life work of Cornel West may depend on digital archaeologists with Masters in Lipreading.

Language, especially a melting pot like the English language, is an excellent tool in transcribing the soul and communicating complex ideas. Yes, to develop a writing skill is akin to a woodworker using hands-on tools to develop her craft. But why neglect this as a basic exercise in education? Do we really want the autofill function of a text message provider to be the driving function of thought in normal communication?

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