The purpose of college writing

I taught writing at the community college level for a few years after I got my Master’s*. One of the first questions the classes would ask every semester was “why is this a required course?” I always thought it was a fair question, really; these folks have just completed a 12-year educational program which included organized training in the English language in pretty much every one of those 12 years. And to be honest, it took me a while before I settled on a good answer to that question.

The easy version of that answer comes down to communication. All of those English classes are geared toward helping students learn to communicate with others. The problem is that no one ever really explains to the students what that means. Children learn to talk by mimicking their parents. Then they learn to write by mimicking the “pictures” they see on the page. Then they learn to spell the words and build the sentences that they’re learning to read in books.

But I’m not sure it ever really goes beyond that. At what point do children become capable of understanding the purpose of communication? (No, really, I have no idea; I have no training in child development.) I suspect that it’s somewhere around the time when they grasp the idea that their actions (and words) affect the people and the world around them. And to be fair, a significant percentage of adults out there have trouble with this concept.

At the risk of getting preachy, I see this as a problem. Our society has spent a large amount of time debating and deciding (or at least attempting to) when a person becomes a person. So why is it so much less important to figure out when they become reasoning and/or useful members of society? We exercise an awful lot of control over the lives of children, and I get that we do so for their protection. And I’m not advocating giving them more control over their lives at a young age. But what would be so wrong with explaining to them why we do what we do “for their own good”? Who knows – maybe some of them might have some good insight on why a lot of what we do isn’t working.

Maybe that’s a long way from freshman composition. But should they really have to be 18 years old before someone finally tells them point blank why they’re in a certain course? And that a little more practice at getting along with others might be a good thing?

*In fairness, you should know why I stopped working as a teacher. It’s really hard to get full-time work as a college-level teacher without a Ph.D., though one can certainly adjunct forever (which is part-time teaching, with no benefits or guarantees). Once my son was born, I had to find a way to get full-time work with benefits and guarantees. So I moved into marketing. But I miss teaching sometimes.

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