Why Johnny Can't Write

This is part of an occasional series on "How To Succeed in College." For previous posts click on the author's name above.

Not long ago and fairly far away one of a leading university’s best students told me that he and his peers got good grades without actually reading the books assigned for the course.

I’ve been around a while, but I retain my ability to be shocked. Meanwhile, his observation was reinforced by the publication of a new book, Academically Adrift: Limiting Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (University of Chicago Press), a book that should rock the academic world, but probably won’t. They base their findings on a study of 2,000 students in 24 four-year- colleges across the country and conclude that among the several reasons for American colleges falling behind in world competition is that the students can’t write. Indeed, it is possible to get a degree in business or education, two of the most popular majors, without doing much writing at all.

Writing matters because it is one of the means of measuring so many other things: whether the student can express anything he or she is supposed to have learned, the quality and depth of one’s thinking, the ability to understand and analyze a text or a personal or political situation, the breadth of one’s imagination — all qualities which the liberal arts are supposed to instill and are needed to survive and prosper in a competitive world. To put it nicely, if you don’t write well you are not deemed to be intelligent.

Measuring the writing assignments in two majors at 10 public four-year colleges, out of 40 courses required for a business degree, only 3.5 required 10-19 pages of writing during the whole semester. Among education majors, with 41 courses required, only 5.9 met that quota. At Lamar University a management major takes only two courses that require more than 20 pages, and at Texas A & M, no bilingual education courses require more than 20 pages. In a 14 week semester, that’s only 1.4 pages a week of writing!

The education statistics are particularly disturbing, both because they add to the general impression that education majors get more A's than other students and their courses are a lot easier. Having been evaluated by low standards some will have lower standards when they enter classrooms as teachers. How many papers will they assign? The management professors were possibly taught by professors who lectured out of a big text book and did not assign a lot of writing. They will do the same.

The second most startling, but not surprising, revelation from the study is how little students study. Writing can improve only in a perticular context: an intellectual atmosphere in which the students are reading heavily, spending time in solitude working on their essays, receiving immediate feedback from their teachers, and acting on that feedback to produce good prose.

But the students in the survey reported spending in average 12.15 hours a week studying outside the classroom. As a matter of fact the general rule for study time is that one should study two hours for every hour spend in the classroom. So, one taking five three-credit courses should buckle down in the library 30 hours a week. Yet, one third of the respondents spent fewer than five hours a week with their books.

What has this to do with writing? Everything. In my composition course last year some students could not tell then from than, were from where. Why? Because they had never seen them in print. But, they exclaimed, “My high school teacher said I was a wonderful writer and gave me A's.” That’s part of the problem. The other part is that they had not read the great stylists who use the language beautifully—Thoreau, George Orwell, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, and E. B. White—and incorporated their powers of observation and simplicity of style into their student work.

This presupposes teachers who read a lot, know good writing from bad, are not intimidated out of assigning lots of reading, want to inspire young writers with good examples, and try to write and publish their own work. How can you teach if you don’t try to do it yourself?

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.


Marie Rehbein
6 years 7 months ago
Gabriel, could it be that the need for remedial classes and the apparent need for reform are due to the assumption that all students are capable for doing college work, but that in the past only the privileged or exceptional students had that opportunity?  Maybe education needs to be simplified for those people who will ultimately end up in professions that simply do not require the kind of wisdom that a college education was intended to provide.  Maybe a college education, and not a grad school degree, should return to being the distinguished attribute it once was, and a system of practical education should be available for those who do not interest themselves in philosophical and literary knowledge.  Students, then, would simply have to learn how to express themselves matter-of-factly in clear, but simple, language. 
Marie Rehbein
6 years 7 months ago

With my third child about to enter yet a different high school from the two high schools my older children attended, I have had a lot of exposure to various teachers and schools.  They teach writing, but not all children learn to write well despite the teachers' best efforts.  I would be interested in suggestions people might have for improving the quality of writing, given that everyone agrees that this is widely lacking in high school graduates of late.


I think there is a lot of pressure on people to look at themselves as "college material" throughout the education process.  Some of this is probably in reaction to those anecdotes of people who were told by their guidance counselors to consider taking up a trade because they did not fit the stereotype of the college-bound.  While there may be a proliferation of trade school ads on television, the implication in the education environment is that this is a course to be taken only if one doesn't do one's homework or has trouble understanding algebra.  The advertising of these for-profit schools doesn't reflect accurately the image they have in the public mind at this point in time.


I would like to suggest, too, that grades do not always reflect knowledge acquired, and thus it may be that those students who might have learned to write well by making mistakes along the way may not be the students that the more selective schools are willing to consider admitting.  If writing ability is a big consideration, then colleges might want to put greater emphasis on the writing portion of the SAT, for example, in the admission determination.  However, I think no one in the long process of providing education wants to be the one to stand in the way of a student's, or his parents', aspirations.
6 years 7 months ago
Very interesting to note that no one yet jumped in right away to make a comment on the piece.   I myself have difficulty expressing myself on paper.  It's pure agony for me!
Chris Brune
6 years 7 months ago
I have had to hire people for jobs that require extensive writing to communicate with clients. I got to the point that, no matter how many degrees the person had, I made them do the writing sample in the office. (I had already had one person turn in a writing sample that had been edited. This person turned out to be a poor writer.)

The worst thing about it is, many of the business people who receive these poorly written reports, memos, e-mails, etc. don't realize that they are badly written. This stuff looks perfectly normal to them!

I say if you cannot write, you cannot think. So far, experience has not proven me wrong.

Nobody likes to write. But, unless you are a hermit, it has to be done.
Gabriel Marcella
6 years 7 months ago
Declining writing skills is a national disgrace. Many reasons are behind it: bad teaching, less reading, not enough writing, declining academic requirements, and technology. Bad teachers can't correct bad writing, and bad teachers usually don't read good writing. Moreover. the advent of the web, e-mail, powerpoint, and all the other fascinations is helping create a culture of virtual illiterates. Some experts predict that writing will be replaced by bulletized bursts of words, sounds, and all that. Have you been subjected to a mindless powerpoint presentation? There is something to be said for wax tablets, codexes, and Gutenberg. One wonders what the impact of Kindle will be.
Gabriel Marcella
6 years 7 months ago
Essays are not ignored. They're meaningful, but too many are badly written. Moreover,  too many colleges and universities have to teach remedial English and even then we still graduate slopppy and incoherent writers. The educational system requires top to bottom reform, so that writing and reading skills are emphasized. As an experienced college professor I can say that we have diluted all levels of education and must return to rigor, fundamentals, and excellence in teaching. If we don't we will lose out to our global competitors. But we can take solace in graduating better football and basketball players.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 7 months ago
Does this mean that the majority of students do not write they own essays on their college applications or that the majority of admissions personnel ignore the essays?
Gabriel Marcella
6 years 7 months ago
I don't know what percentage of high school students go on to college, but even many of those who "qualify" to enter can't write. Obviously, not all should go to college. Many don't and pursue vocational training, join the military, or jump into the job market where their horizons are limited because they lack education. We have a serious problem with schools, inadequate teachers, the general dumming down of basic curriculum requirements, along with poor incentives for excellence in teaching. High school is the place where good writing habits must be learned. Colleges should not be conducting remedial classes in English. Another point: we have the best colleges and universities in the world, we do not have the best high schools. It's time to close the gap of excellence.
Gabriel Marcella
6 years 7 months ago
Marie and David:
There are many aspects to this problem, but we agree that grade and high schools should do better in teaching writing. But better writing comes from better reading. Reading is declining in our society. Teachers as well as students are reading less. Check to see what your local schools require every day for reading. Are the teachers doing their jobs? Do they write and speak grammatically? What about the parents? They have a central role in all of this.
David: Perhaps Kindle will increase reading because people might have better access to books.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

There is only so much room—in our houses, in our hearts. At some point, we have got to let go.
Nick Ripatrazone September 20, 2017
The moment we begin to measure, we know nothing of love, know nothing of God.
Terrance KleinSeptember 20, 2017
The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt says that the image of a God who suffers with us can play a role in helping people recover.
Kaya OakesSeptember 20, 2017
John F. Kennedy’s austere brand of patriotism still shines.
John J. ConleySeptember 19, 2017