The forms of thought

In his online New York Times column, "Think Again," Stanley Fish writes here, here, and here about the way writing is taught at American colleges. His conclusion: It usually isn't taught well when it is taught at all. Along the way Fish spars with several composition teachers who, in their responses to his first column on the topic, assume that Professor Fish, an eminent Milton scholar, has never taught composition himself. True, he doesn't say anything in that first column about his own extensive experience as a writing teacher and tutor (at UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and, most recently, Columbia University's Teachers College). So his critics took the bait. Fish has some fun reeling them in.

When Max Byrd says (contemptuously), Professor Fish might get off his high horse and teach a course himself, I reply, Professor Byrd should climb off his low horse and do some fact-checking before he pronounces.

In his third column, Fish mentions one important exception to his general observation that American high schools don't teach students how to write.

By all the evidence, high schools and middle schools are not teaching writing skills in an effective way, if they are teaching them at all. The exception seems to be Catholic schools. More than a few commentators remembered with a mixture of fondness and pain the instruction they received at the hands of severe nuns. And I have found that those students in my classes who do have a grasp of the craft of writing are graduates of parochial schools. (I note parenthetically that in many archdioceses such schools are being closed, not a good omen for those who prize writing.)

Fish thinks the best way to teach students how to writeis to teach them the various forms an English sentence can take. These forms are what generate meaning. They "are not inert taxonomic forms, but forms of thought." The content doesn'tmatter—indeed, to the composition teacher it is usually a distraction. Fish shows his own students a "neither/nor" sentence, has them write their own"neither/nor" sentences (about anything), then asks them to analysethe deep structure of such a sentence: How does it "organize items and actions in the world"? This is not exactly the method those severe nuns used, but an emphasis on the formal elements of language—in English and, for many students at Catholic secondary schools, also in Latin—did once distinguish Catholic education. Does it still?

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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