Dear Pink Book readers,
I typically do not introduce guest bloggers, but I would like to take the opportunity to introduce you to Mr. Lee Daniels, the Communications Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Daniels recently as the NAACP LDF is a current client of mine.
After reading, COMMENTARY: Writing, Society & the Lack of Education Plaguing Our Nation, Mr. Daniels had some insightful and great comments to share.
Over the past 35 years Mr. Daniels has reported for three of the most well-known and prominent media outlets in the United States, WGBH-TV in Boston, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. He has edited The State of Black America, Opportunity Journal and the National Urban League. Mr. Daniels was at the Urban League for nearly a decade and was also the ghost-writer for the weekly, syndicated and acclaimed column, “To Be Equal.”
Without further ado, guys and dolls, I give you Mr. Lee Daniels…
By: Lee A. Daniels, guest blogger
As one who has been fortunate enough to live out a childhood dream â€“ being a reporter and writer of non-fiction all my adult life — your commentary of April 7 about the decline of good writing skills reminded me of my grappling with this very issue in the seemingly long-ago mid-1990s: when computers were primitive by todayâ€™s standards and cellphones as we know them today barely visible on the horizon.
The cause, I decided then and am even more sure of today, lies in the negative impact of technology.
Let me explain:
I was then teaching expository writing to first-year college students at Harvard University while working my way through a three-year fellowship there that was primarily concerned with gauging the impact of technology on the mainstream media. I myself had taken expository writing as a Harvard undergrad twenty-five years earlier, but the departmentâ€™s teaching veterans warned me: â€œLee, itâ€™s not the same as when you were here. These days students canâ€™t write.â€
I thought to myself, remembering how wooden some studentsâ€™ prose (including, undoubtedly, some of my own) was in the old days, surely that couldnâ€™t be true.
Well, it wasnâ€™t true for a significant group of the total of 150 students I taught over five semesters: Perhaps three-dozen of these came in as good writers â€“ the kind whose skills were such they just needed an introduction to the demands of â€œadultâ€ writing. Another ten or so were really good: all their writing skill needed was the kind of polishing a course that concentrated on writing could provide. And another ten I considered exceptional: they possessed a huge vocabulary and an imaginative and sophisticated skill at narration and argument that astonished me â€“ and made me glad I wasnâ€™t competing against them for a job.
But, in fact the teaching veteransâ€™ warning was true enough for the generalization to have bite. During the first semester I taught, that so many of these tops-in-the-nation students had significant writing problems at first befuddled me. Their ability to conceive a major idea for an essay was poor, their skill at even rudimentary organization was almost non-existent, their writing vocabulary limited and their ability to use it even more limited.
(And, to be clear, those who had problems came from family circumstances up as well as down the socio-economic ladder. Indeed, the two students whose ability to write was the poorest at the beginning of any of my courses both came from top private schools and families in the top two-percent income bracket. What all these elite college students with writing problems did have, however, was the kind of scholastic preparation that, with a semesterâ€™s intensive work in a highly competitive environment that demanded excellence, most often enabled them to chart a sharp improvement in their skills within that twelve-week span.)
But then I began to see the light â€“ when I noticed how facile they were at using the latest technically-advanced implements of communication. How dependent, in fact, many of them were at letting the technology do the work for them. Unsure of a wordâ€™s meaning: donâ€™t go to the dictionary book or Rogetâ€™s book, press the key and let the computer undertake the physical act of sifting while you just sit back. I began to see that many of these students had not learned to think beyond the confines of the computer. They had not really had to grapple on a sustained basis with the physical and intellectual act of constructing an essay â€“ which is an exercise in vertical, or linear, thinking â€“ on their own. They had been caught in an era in which the pace of technological change had sped up exponentially and, from what I could see, often overwhelming the value of the traditional modes of teaching writing in high school.
Donâ€™t misunderstand. Iâ€™m not asserting all students in the â€œgood old daysâ€ were budding Norman Mailers or Toni Morrisons. Many of them couldnâ€™t write worth a damn, either. Nor am I a Luddite. As one whose professional journalism career began when electric typewriters were the â€œnew thing,â€ I have long bowed down to the computer â€“ the faster, smaller and lighter the better. And the older I get, the more technological whiz-bang implements I set my eye on acquiring.
My point is just that we must recognize technological advances also inevitably have some sort of negative impact on some societal characteristics or qualities that some, perhaps many hold dear, and that that negative impact can take hold without our even realizing that itâ€™s happened. That is more so the case in this era when, to say it again, the pace of technological change â€“ the explosion of technological implements (now we have the iPad; didnâ€™t they just bring out the iPhone! What will it be next week?) that do so much of the thinking each of us used to have to do on our own â€“ is too fast, too furious and seemingly unending.
Whenever I think about these things, I always remind myself that Henry James, the great 19th-century Anglo-American novelist, refused for years to use a typewriter or communicate by telephone â€“ the hot new technological inventions of his era. He said they would be the death of letter-writing, which demanded a more considered use of language and thus a more disciplined way of thinking.
Jamesâ€™ resistance, his rage against the machine, of course, was futile. But, then, too, he wasnâ€™t all wrong.