Writing Well: Why Bother?

My sister recently sent me a link to a piece in The Daily Beast called “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.”  It was written by a fellow named John McWhorter who appears to be a professor of some sort (music?)  His analysis of Ms. Kardashian’s lack of writing skills is brief–she had only a high school education that “unsurprisingly did not teach her the finer points of how to write a sentence.”  Then he moves on to the real reasons for his essay:  Defending Cornel West’s lack of written scholarship and, more crucially, the idea that good writing doesn’t matter anyway.

McWhorter says that West is a “revered” public intellectual “who has not written academic books in a quarter-century now, does not write published refereed academic articles, and overall does not like writing and does as little of it as possible.”  That’s fine with McWhorter, and it’s fine with me, too.  The less drivel posing as scholarship, the better.  As he admits, he himself has “written a few purely academic books and they are consulted by almost no one; most such books aren’t.”

His contention that we shouldn’t want to write well, on the other hand, is an example of what the education establishment–from kindergarten to grad school–does best:  Declare a lack of achievement as the norm and hail it as progress.  Consider this damning question:  “Who among us imagines that public schools will really go back to teaching sentence structure and prose style as strictly as in the old days?”  Who, indeed?  And why would we have to go back?  McWhorter’s solution:  “[A]n oral approach to composition [that] lends itself to precisely the qualities so fashionable in today’s education schools.”  The Colleges of Education, which have done so much to dumb our children down, must be accommodated.

Why would an educated man to whom good writing is important–he was awarded tenure because of one of his books–want to deny that skill to others?  Midway through his article, Professor McWhorter gives the game away with another question:  “[M]ight we stop pretending that ordinary people need to be able to write on a level higher than functional” (emphasis mine).  “Ordinary people” is a trope used by politicians, academics and the media to separate themselves from everyone else and, make no mistake, “ordinary” is not intended to convey admiration.  According to McWhorter, writing well should be left to academia:  “In the coming America, ideally this would be part of the value of the most challenging universities . . .”

Everyone else can text and tweet and talk on their cellphones to their increasingly illiterate content.


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