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Taught to remove all thought

Writing by the numbers, as dictated by Tallahassee, has created a generation of students whose words lack passion, creativity and original ideas.

By LYNN STRATTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002


I'm about to become a college dropout for the second time in my life.

The first time, I was a freshman in New York City during the last years of the Vietnam War. I decided I didn't want to be a part of what we called "the system."

This time, I'm not a student but an instructor. And I'm dropping out again. It will be hard, very hard, because I love teaching.

But I know when I'm beat. I can't do this job anymore.

Here's the problem: In our zeal for numbers, for measuring our kids so we can report that they really can write because they've passed a test, we're focusing on the forest but forgetting the trees.

Writing is putting ideas on paper. That's all -- and it's a lot. It's one of the most important things we can learn to do, putting our ideas on paper, expressing what we think. Putting our ideas on paper can make magic.

But to make kids pass our standardized tests, we force them to see writing as simply a formula, as anything but what it really is. Writing should be dangerous stuff -- and it was before we killed it.

We tell kids, "Okay, this is how to write. You must have five paragraphs in your essay, and the first paragraph must have a thesis sentence in which you specify the three main points of your paper, and each paragraph must have four to seven sentences, and each sentence must have eight to 10 words." (Yes, trust me; that's what they're being taught.)

But we forget that we're not talking about words and sentences and paragraphs; we're talking about ideas. What we're really telling students is that they must have exactly three ideas in everything they write, and each idea must be exactly such a length. And it's ludicrous. Ideas can't be measured; they can't be quantified.

But I'm clearly in the minority now, marching in the opposite direction, going against all the educators and bureaucrats. Still, I refuse to teach -- even to allow -- this mediocre writing, this uninspired thinking.

So, I quit. Our children, our teenagers, are victims of the Stockholm Syndrome; they've begun identifying with their captors. Our schools have brainwashed them into believing that writing -- that thinking -- is simply a matter of numbers. I can no longer teach them because, more than ever, they no longer believe me when I tell them that writing in the real world isn't like that.

Look, I tell them. Read something that's been published. Do you find everything in five neat paragraphs, with four to seven sentences in each paragraph?

They look at me. Why am I telling them this?

And look, I say. Don't real writers repeat words? (Oh, yes -- they're told they must never repeat words.) And their eyes give away their mistrust of what I'm telling them. I'm denying the validity of their belief system, contradicting everything they've been told.

But I keep trying. Look, I say. Don't all these writers, these people who have been published, don't they often use the word "I"? (They're told they must never use that word in most schools.) Don't some of these real writers use paragraphs that are one sentence long, or sentences that are one word long? These people you're reading are real writers, and they know there are no formulas to follow in writing.

As I say it, though, I know I'm telling them a lie. There are formulas in writing, the ones the people in Tallahassee use to show us that our children can write. That the system works.

Yes, it works: It produces unthinking teenagers who produce automatic essays full of, well . . . nothing, really. Because another thing they're taught is that opinions are bad. Of course, opinions express ideas, and if you follow that thinking through to its logical conclusion, then ideas are bad. I'll have my students read a particularly good essay, and they'll say, Well, but that's an opinion. Yes, it is, I answer. And? And, well, that's bad. You can't have opinions, only facts.

So they go out into the world, and they're timid; they're afraid to have an opinion. Ah, but that's good: good for business, which likes people to do as they're told; good for the country, because dissent, especially now, is . . . well, not good.

So I tell them, You know, it was a crime in most of this country many years ago to teach a slave to read or write. Why do you think we had those laws? Sometimes, one of the less timid students will cautiously raise a hand and take a stab at it. Because slaves could get ideas?

Right, yes. Slaves could get ideas, and ideas are dangerous. The owners, those in power, didn't want that. Do you see any parallel between that and what's happening in our schools?

No, they don't. Oh, I might have one occasionally who gets it, but the majority have been trained so well they don't see any connection.

Most of them think I'm nuts. Just another crazy, ranting professor. Their eyes blink off, and they go someplace where they don't have to think about what I'm saying. They're planning lunch or their trip to Ybor City that night. Someplace safe.

But I'm trying to steer them away from that safety, that sameness. I'm trying to make them dangerous. I'm trying to get them to think.

They'll have none of that, thank you. Our young people have had the thinking beaten out of them. We do it in our classrooms, in what we have them write. We do it especially in what we have them read. It's no longer a secret that our standardized tests, even our textbooks, have been sanitized. They've been cut up, had all the important ideas taken out of them -- all the tough questions, the conflicts.

I explain to my students that writers don't write about nice things; they write about the hard things, the difficult ideas. No one writes about what a nice day it is.

But all this has been going on for years. So why am I quitting now?

Because it's about to get much worse. Now that Tallahassee has taken over completely, now that we're to have one seamless educational system, prekindergarten through graduate school, the practices entrenched in our schools will become entrenched in our colleges.

It's happening already. The students who have been trained to write this way are now teachers who teach writing this way. More and more, I encounter college writing instructors who insist on the formula: five paragraphs, no more -- even in advanced courses, even in other departments. The older professors, the ones to whom the formula essay is simply bad writing, are retiring. The younger ones are taking over, passing on their wisdom about writing, what they were taught: Count your ideas. Be careful not to have too many.

And if a student dares to have four ideas, instead of three? . . . Toss one out. Only three ideas allowed. I've seen students fail assignments because they had the wrong numbers.

And they can't stop writing that way. Many have told me, even in tears, that they try to write differently, but they can't.

Brainwashing does that. Now, imagine the future. Imagine these students, your children, afraid to write, to put their ideas on paper. Imagine them trying to fight for what they believe in -- if they're brave enough to believe in anything at all.

Imagine them in business. In medicine. In law.

In politics.

As for me, I have no children, other than the ones I've worked with over the years. But I no longer can fight this system, the one that tries to deaden our kids, to make them afraid to think. Worse, I'm afraid that eventually they'll get to me, too.

The first time I dropped out of college, I was afraid the system would kill my ideas and make me less human. I didn't want any part of it.

This time, the system is different, but the result will be the same.

I don't want any part of this system, either.

-- Lynn Stratton has taught writing at the University of South Florida for 13 years. She lives in St. Petersburg.

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