by Danielle Pieratti
At a recent monthly English department meeting, my colleagues and I read a brief, double-sided handout with excerpts from two 2017 articles our administrators had hand-picked for discussion. The first, The New Teacher Project’s Sobering Report on Students Doing Below-Grade-Level Work, began with the genuinely sobering announcement that “While more students than ever before are enrolling in college, far fewer are succeeding once they get there,” a claim it supported with data on remediation from the Institute of Education Service’s National Center for Education Statistics. On the flip side both literally and figuratively, Education Weekly’s ‘Elevator Speeches’ and Other Skills Students Are Missing compared and contrasted the writing tasks students practice in high school (as in: book reports, Powerpoint presentations, note-taking, and reading analysis) with those employers are actually looking for (i.e. straightforward and courteous emails, clear and concise explanations for different audiences, and written interviews). Both articles were troubling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was their obvious incongruity; while one bemoaned students’ lack of utilitarian skills, the other pinned the increase in college remediation on graduating students’ inability to tackle “grade-level” work, a theory it based on a five-district study by a team that admittedly “did not seek to construct a nationally representative sample.”
While I frequently check my own knee-jerk reactions to articles like these, I came away from the meeting with a tangible sense of whiplash. Forget that the purpose of writing isn’t just to communicate, argue, or sell, these articles seemed to say. Never mind the highly varied conventions of writing in academia, or the fact that an economics student could no more write a linguistics paper than a public relations professional could an engineering proposal–as secondary school English teachers, our job is somehow to prepare students for any and all of these. And this frustrating truth persists despite its historical impotence: unresolved and often poorly supported arguments concerning the role of literacy have existed since the early decades of modern history.
The English teacher’s most dreaded student question—“when are we ever going to need this?”–is a case in point. Indeed, although much public scrutiny of the humanities relies on the assumption that education’s purpose is to prepare students for the workplace, the alignment between education and work is a relatively new construct, one that has alternately flourished and waned since the end of the 19th century. According to scholar David R. Russell, prior to the rise of industry and the specialization of universities, all higher education was “liberal”–characterized not by research but by a fixed canon designed to nurture broad cultural knowledge, ethics, and civic engagement–an approach whose legacy still impacts public education today. Yet for at least the past century, vocational and professional demands have competed with this liberal precedent, pitting the utilitarian against the humanistic, and inspiring loyalties that fall along expected political lines.
Similarly, the seemingly ubiquitous cry for schools to maintain reading and writing rigor falsely assumes that the readers and writers of the past were a more elite bunch than we see in schools today. In truth, recent generations of college-bound public school students, though increasingly more linguistically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse, have been challenged more than ever. A 2008 study by Lunsford and Lunsford found that students in first-year writing classes wrote papers that were two-and-a-half times longer than in the 1980s, and that the rate of errors in student writing had remained the same; indeed, the rate of errors per 100 words had remained steady since 1917, despite the fact that 2008 essays were more than six times longer. In addition, the papers of students in 2008 focused more heavily on sophisticated argument and research than on personal narrative.
Detractors who point to some prior golden age as evidence of waning intellect in today’s students or teachers misunderstand the fickle social and political forces that have always governed who was educated, how, and for what purpose. And the sloppy conflation of academic writing with professional writing betrays a fundamental lack of familiarity with their context—a polarizing narrative that still connects technical skill with blue-collar work, necessity, economic mobility, and mental drudgery, and academia with luxury, self-improvement, idealism, and elitism.
It’s important for teachers to actively question damaging narratives that reinforce the binary between vocational and liberal education, just as it is crucial that we recognize the historical differences between the two. Furthermore, when we assume in the first place that the only purpose of education is to meet tangible, foreseeable demands, we may miss larger, more crucial questions: What is meant by terms such as “grade-level,” and “career-ready,” and who gets to decide? In what ways do the demands of higher education and corporate America reinforce hierarchies that compromise public education and threaten students’ ability to learn? And in the service of those volatile demands, what are we willing to sacrifice?
Danielle Pieratti is a high school English teacher, poet, and PhD student at the University of Connecticut. Her book of poems, Fugitives (Lost Horse Press, 2016), won the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry in 2017.