Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.

Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.

Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.

The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.

In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper. Continue reading