With each passing year, greater numbers of students arrive at Day One of my high school writing classes already questioning the value of what we do. Even in the honors classes, I’ve noticed a growing trend of students seemingly waiting to pounce on the moment when they can boldly declare how much they hate reading novels or how useless it is to practice writing.
“It’s fine for you,” a student told me just a few days ago. “You write books about robots and adventure and stuff, but I don’t care about that. I already write good enough. [sic] I’m not going to be a writer, so none of this will help me in real life.”
These doubts deserve honest analysis. What if novels and fiction and essays really have been made obsolete by video games and texts and Facebook posts? If these new media are the future of human communication, is it really worth students’ time and taxpayers’ dollars to teach them such outdated forms? Or even that it’s worth spelling “you” with three letters?
The answer can’t rest on mere tradition. Just because we’ve always done things this way doesn’t mean we always should. If that were the case, we’d still be boxing children’s ears every time they emerged from the coal mines before the end of their fourteen hour shifts. And it should also be noted that these students aren’t arguing for illiteracy, just that they’ve already learned the rudimentary mechanics of reading and writing, and they believe that’s enough. Why learn more?
Across this country, Teachers of literature frequently find themselves answering this question, and not just to students. They must explain to parents and school boards and legislators that literature is more than an idle pastime because it teaches us different perspectives from our past, present, and future. Furthermore, students who regularly read also score higher on every important exam, including those outside the humanities. Scientific research also confirms that reading challenging literature strengthens the brain.
I wholeheartedly agree with all those arguments, but I feel that there’s at least one more point that needs to be made in defense of writing, and specifically creative writing at that.
Naturally, reading and writing can’t be split apart any more than you could yank the north pole off the top of a magnet. They are Yin and Yang, and every author knows that to be a writer, one must also be a reader. But most classes still revolve around which books you’ve read and how much you remember about them. Maybe this is another artifact of past educational systems, or maybe it’s because English teachers are always passionate readers but not always passionate writers. Whatever the case, the skills of writing for different purposes, different audiences, and in different forms are all too often forgotten or assumed, and then teachers and professors are shocked when even graduate-level students struggle with structuring their essays, let alone with forms of writing other than the essay.
Writing takes practice, but even in our world of texts and emails it’s still worth taking the time to master some of the skills required to be better understood. We don’t have to write like Shakespeare, but we should have the power to express ourselves in writing so that others can understand us—or, at the very least, so that others won’t think we’re idiots.
Anyway, that’s what I’d like to tell the kid who thinks writing is a waste of time. I know he’ll never read this (and I won’t assign anything I’ve ever written because it just seems too narcissistic), but as final proof of the power of the written word, far more people will hear my side of the argument because of this post than will ever hear his opinion. And if he disagrees, he’s more than welcome to leave a (written) comment on this post!