The SATs no longer require an essay — so what?

    Students hard at work</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

    (Students hard at work image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    Since people can’t write when they graduate from college, what difference does it make whether they can write when they enter? People earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, build profitable careers in business, the arts, whatever — and still don’t know a command verb from a comma.

    Having taught a thousand adults to write nonfiction — and that’s the truth — since 1988, I know that basic grammar is a lost art. It kills me. Doctors can’t write, lawyers can’t write, chiefs of staffs can’t write. I wonder how they communicate with patients, clients and the rest of the world.

    Each year I notice a marginal decline in writing literacy. Recently it’s getting worse. Many people are victims of inadequate educations, even from name-brand universities.

    Once a man hired me to train his advertising staff to write better. We did 10 hours of classes. Soon after, I encountered him in a movie theater. He introduced me to his wife, an English teacher in a Philadelphia high school. “My students don’t like grammar,” she said, “so I don’t teach it.”

    Flabbergastation overwhelmed me. I thanked her for breeding my future students.

    Not that a good grasp of grammar guarantees good writing. It don’t.

    Why good writing matters

    Many people claim writing skills they clearly lack. Whom to blame? One high-school teacher? College professors focus on their courses’ content — even instructors of English literature, and even in schools with writing-across-the-curriculum programs — and sidestep plain, ordinary writing skills. Whether profs don’t know or don’t care about grammar, the results are the same: unschooled writers at graduation.

    The ones who gall me the most are those who call themselves professionals and charge for their services. Those who passively accept passive voice because they don’t recognize the alternative.

    Even though I write for a living, I don’t claim to be the best writer on my block. But since I cannot subtract or divide, I don’t promote myself as a bookkeeper. I hated science classes, so I don’t consult on bridge construction, electrical engineering or ravaging influenza viruses. How can someone who cannot organize a three-sentence news release earn $$$ to write website copy?

    But, you might say, one can tell a great story without writing well. Yes, and think how much more compelling the tale would sound if one tightened the copy and used more-precise words. Writing is a dying art, you say. True. But so are penmanship and steam engines and virgin weddings.

    Someone still needs to write manuals for the next generation of tech tools, speeches for not-yet-elected officials and books and magazines for your pleasure. Writing can never die. It can get weak and powerless and boring and fuzzy. Wait: That’s where I started.

    Try this at home: Think of a story you tell often: an anecdote about driving, diving or donuts. Write it. Can you make it sound as fun, as poignant, as energetic as the one you recite?

    When organizations invite me to review their existing written material, I cannot believe that no employee nor expensive consultant has noticed that they spell their town’s name wrong on their stationery. That their website never specifies what the company does. That they omit the dollar amount in their requests for funding.

    Too many Americans fail to organize their writing projects, covering all necessary points, focusing on the essentials, eliminating the chaff.

    When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to write a eulogy, a love letter, a plea to an elected official, flyers for a nonprofit or sales reports to the boss — it helps to be able to link sentences together into cohesive, coherent paragraphs and pages. The writer has to do the work, I tell students, so the reader doesn’t.

    SAT essays are a bad idea anyway

    The SAT essays are still optional. College applicants can write them in crowded spaces surrounded by other terrified teens, using No. 2 pencils on lined paper. How anachronistic. Even though teachers have quit teaching handwriting, adolescents have to write legibly — now, under extreme pressure.

    The anxiety to write neatly, filling a random but fastidiously strict length, can kill the creativity and writing ability in most candidates.

    In 2012, Les Perelman, then a director of writing at MIT, met with David Coleman, soon to become president of the College Board, which owns the SAT. He recalled the conversation in a New York Times Magazine article:

    “When is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” Coleman asked. “I’ve never gotten an e-mail from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes.’ But that’s what the SAT does.”

    Since these essays prove little about the writing ability of future freshmen, dropping them or making them voluntary changes nothing.

    Once I taught “effective writing” (an ineffective title), in a non-credit program. In the first session, each person submitted a paper proving that their grasp of writing resembled my grasp of subquantum kinetics. Before the evening ended, I mentioned my decision to amend the syllabus to include a session on grammar. One woman, the worst offender, actually, rose and headed for the exit. I asked if she would be returning. No, she said. “I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with A’s in English. I don’t need to learn grammar.”

    I responded that I had graduated from the same U with B’s in English, but that it seemed as though some remediation was in order. What must she have written on her SAT essay?

    A woman in an essay-writing class once brought a haunting piece about the graveside funeral for her cranky grandmother. Everyone at the funeral was welcome to speak, but no one did. After several awkward, silent moments, a boy said, “She made good cookies.”

    At the funeral for the SAT essay, I am keeping my mouth shut.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.