Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Why Johnny Can't Write
In 1975 Newsweek published the article “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” claiming that the U.S. educational system was spawning “a generation of semiliterates.” As evidence of the dire quality of student writing, Newsweek author Merill Sheils presented four examples of student writing. What strikes me about those samples is that the errors offered as evidence are accessible to a general audience—misspelled words, misplaced prepositional phrases, and convoluted prose. They are all errors that readers can “get.” The assumption is that educated writers would not make errors in their writing. Yet, grammar, punctuation, and usage errors can be found in many pieces of writing. It’s just that some errors matter more than others if we are to provide evidence of a literacy crisis in the U.S. I doubt errors in semi-colon usage would get readers as interested as the samples provided by Sheils.
Another fascinating aspect of the “Why Johnny Can’t Write” article is the visual imagery. On the cover is Johnny—white, middle class, and on his way to college. He obviously represents the establishment, but the images included with the article show quite different faces. Here, for example, we find images of white children watching TV and attentive African American high school students with their white, female teachers. We never see Johnny in the classroom. Why do we never learn the fate of Johnny?
For a useful analysis of the "Why Johnny Can't Write" article, see the National Conversation on Writing video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykOtgK2sKy0