Why Michael Ellsberg Wouldn’t Pass My English 101
It’s not unusual to find vapid arguments about higher education on ” journalists’” web articles and blogs these days. But they’re becoming more frequent, which means they have to push the envelope to get attention. That means making even less-informed, more incendiary claims about what teachers in the Humanities do or don’t do. In the latest and greatest such piece, entitled “Why Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar,” Michael Ellsberg claims that college students can’t possibly learn clear writing in their classes because their professors themselves write hopelessly tangled prose. No responsible journalist would make such a bold claim without evidence, right? Of course, I use the term “journalist” loosely with Michael Ellsberg. Judging from his recent column in Forbes, I’m not sure he is one (not even in that wacky Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson sense). In fact, I’m not even sure he’d pass my English 101 class based on this kind of writing. Let me explain why.
Point #1: My English 101 class expects students (by the end of the semester) not only to write clearly but to support claims with relevant evidence. We spend a fair deal of time on this point. But take Ellsberg, who claims it’s impossible to learn writing in college based on an excerpt from a sociologist who died 30 years ago. Houston, do we have a problem in reasoning here? How does Ellsberg get away with advising us to “stay a thousand miles away from most university professors” if his only source is a single piece of bad prose?
Point #2: My English 101 class also teaches sound argument as part of writing. But take Ellsberg, who praises a book written by a university professor and then later tells us that university professors don’t know how to write. Imagine if I said that I never go to clinics or hospitals anymore because my doctor once said that sometimes radiologists are slow. We rhetoricians call this argument the “hasty generalization” fallacy.
Point #3: Another logical fallacy in argument I teach students is the ”straw man.” When politicians or celebrities have nothing of original value to say, they fabricate an issue or a problem that doesn’t actually exist and then complain about it. In Ellsberg’s case, he doesn’t seem to realize that the Talcott Parsons of the academic world would never stray within a thousand miles of a writing classroom to begin with. So Ellsberg’s problem doesn’t actually exist.
Conclusion: So don’t worry, Michael. Writing might be taught by under-appreciated faculty, but most of us know what we’re doing and we don’t write like dear Talcott. It would be nice if more “journalists” would actually live up to their old reputations and do some research before they run their mouths.