March 3, 1989
Dear Maurice duQuesnay:
You have recalled something that I had said in a past conversation about writing. Perhaps we were talking about the need to have our college student do more writing or perhaps we were talking about methods and devices which would require them to write more. At this time, I do not have any more precise memory of what we had been talking about. But I agree that the subject is an important one and I am glad to have your request to me to set down something more on the subject.
Looking over our own college and university population as a whole, I think that it is clear that we don’t require enough writing work of our students and that as a consequence many of our college students do not write very well. But with over two thousand degree-granting institutions, how much variation there is in the kinds of programs taught and kinds of standards in force! In some of our institutions, there is no doubt that a sufficient amount of writing is required. But on the whole, surely the amount is too small. Many students dislike the job of writing papers. I expect that few people actually do like to write. For if one has any standards, writing forces a general and constant concern with decisions: Should this paragraph begin the essay? Or shouldn’t it be that one? Does the following sentence make the necessary transition to the next point? Is “splendid,” or “happy” or “decisive” the adjective that best describes Mr. X’s action?
Without the right choices, the prose suffers. But a student that writes little and abhors the strain on his powers of choice, and who often has few resources on which to draw, the process is unpleasant. So many a student shrinks from a written assignment.
In my lifetime I have known a considerable number of writers, including a considerable number of professional writers and many even of these put off actually sitting down to get something on the white untarnished page before them. But these professional writers do write, one answers. Yes, they may not like it, but they do get it done, nevertheless.
They do write, because even those who do not address the typewriter with joy will find themselves miserable if they are prevented from writing. For more people than you might think, actual writing is a kind of game: a puzzle, a problem, but one that cannot be evaded or escaped. If we ask the average student to do a certain amount of written work, we are putting him to no cruel and unusual punishment. We are actually making it easier for him to acquire an important skill.
If a student is to do some writing at the college or university level, he should have been prepared at the elementary and secondary level to do so. It ought not to be the job of the college instructor to teach him elementary grammar and punctuation. A student is not really ready for college unless he is able to write correct English prose.
Yet I know that what I have just written runs quite counter to what our procedures in this country are. A great deal of college freshman English is actually elementary English, retaught or perhaps taught for the first time in the student’s career. The title of such a course may be something like “Remedial English.” But if many of our institutions have to admit students who cannot write English prose, then it has to pick them up where they are, and start with what they have learned back in the 6th grade.
I trust that these two preceding paragraphs will make it clear that I am after all a realist. If the college must do what the secondary school has failed to do, it still must do just that — but the discerning person will understand, nevertheless, that as a consequence not all the student’s four years of college work are really devoted to college work.
Some of these matters became clearer to me because I was a student in a British university early in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to Oxford University and decided not to begin my work by going immediately into graduate study, though I already had my B.A. and M.A.1 Instead I decided to read for the honors B.A. in English, taking what the British call an undergraduate degree.
An important element in my decision was my desire to see how the Oxford plan worked with its tutorial system. Besides, English literature is so vast that I felt that I would not have to do too much repetition of well worn texts. Those that I already knew I could skip through rapidly and read some that I did not know.
What I found very quickly was that the British students wrote rather well. (They had been quite well trained in writing English before they were admitted to Oxford.) One result was that there was rather less complaining about written assignments. The students were used to writing.
Actually, there was not a great deal of written work required. I, for example, had to do only one essay a week which I read to my tutor. He might interrupt from time to time, to comment on an opinion I had expressed or suggest a quotation that I might have well have used as an illustration. Nevertheless, he was quite prepared to comment on my style also — and, if the grammar was seriously amiss, certainly he would comment on the grammar.
(Perhaps I should add this: if a student’s grammar and style were really bad but the student had somehow managed nevertheless to get into the university through the lapses of the admission office, the tutor would almost certainly suggest to the student that he withdraw from the university or abandon the honors degree and take the much simpler pass degree. After all, to gain his honors degree, the student would have to carry out a series of written examinations stretching through some 27 to 30 hours, all of them done within one week’s time. Unless he could write well enough to clear this formidable hurdle, his degree chances were hopeless indeed.)
Preparing for that final examination was what a student’s life at Oxford was finally about. It, and the short oral examination that followed it, were the only matters that actually counted toward his degree. All the previous written assignments were no more than practice runs in preparation for this final event.
The importance placed upon good, well-organized writing is perhaps best emphasized by what my Oxford tutor prescribed for me during my six-weeks spring vacation, the last vacation before the final examination was to take place in June. I was to find a quiet place in the country where I could put up. I was to buy from the Oxford book store and take down with me copies of the English examinations in language and literature as given in the four preceding years. These were printed and could be purchased in pamphlet form.
Once at my country lodgings, my work would be to sit down every morning and write several thirty-minute answers to such questions printed in the examinations as I wanted to tackle. Later I was to look carefully over what I had written that morning, note what could be improved and rethink those answers in which I saw that I have been vague or unconvincing. In short, I was for six weeks to practice taking the final examination by undertaking to answer questions which the students of previous years had answered, to do this under approximately the same conditions that would obtain when I faced the whole examination later; but I would have the advantage of having an opportunity to evaluate my own efforts and to observe what my strengths and weaknesses were.
I could relax by taking walks over the countryside or by the sea. My last short vacation was thus a strenuous period for me with lots of practice in writing against the clock but with plenty of time for self-examination in which I could estimate what I had learned about my subject but also what I learned about my own writing.
I shall make no attempt here to suggest how we in America might use or modify techniques of the sort I have described. I want to make instead a much simpler suggestion: if we want to improve student writing in this country, we must take it seriously, we must make sure that our students take it seriously, and, whatever stratagems and devices we introduce, we must make sure that our students do much more writing than they nowadays do.
1 Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were both in residence in Oxford during the academic year 1929-30. Warren was near the end of his studies at New College; and Brooks, at Exeter, was at the beginning of his. See Cleanth Brooks, “A Tribute to Robert Penn Warren,” Southern Review 26.1 (Winter 1990), pp. 2-4. This was the address that Brooks delivered for the service in memory of his friend that was held, in New York, at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, on 14 November 1989, eight months after writing his letter to Maurice W. duQuesnay. Warren had died, in Stratton, Vermont, on 15 September.