In a recent article in The Atlantic, Peg Tyre documents the remarkable turnaround in student performance at an underperforming high school when the curriculum was altered to put a focus on analytic writing. Analytic writing, it turns out, is a marker of critical thinking: if you can craft clear and coherent written sentences, paragraphs and essays it generally means you have clear and coherent, well considered thoughts. Sounds like common sense or maybe even obvious? Apparently not. And the ability to write well translates into improved performance in all disciplines, not just English and the Social Sciences.What? Critical thinking skills help you no matter what subject you are studying? Sacre bleu! I was part of that generation that had to do grammar exercises as part of my core studies – I remember what felt like a whole year (probably a semester) doing nothing but diagramming sentences. Also spelling, handwriting (cursive and block), debate, all that stuff. Then when I got into advanced grades, we wrote. First it was outlines, then summaries of books (aka the book report). Then we had to have ideas about those summaries.
After we had ideas, we had to have arguments. Remember this structure? 5 paragraphs, Intro, Support, Support, Support, Conclusion. A gold star for anyone who can tell me in which order you are supposed to put your support points. By the time I was in 11th and 12th grade (the last two years of high or secondary school) we were doing regular full fledged essays for English and History. There was a writing component for the SAT and Advanced Placement exams as I remember.
Went I got to college, I knew by comparison to some of my classmates that I had received a strong foundation for critical thinking and analytic writing. It was an underpinning of my interest and ability in philosophy. What I didn’t understand was how important School House Rock was.
What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively.
Conjunction junction what is your function?
These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”
Oh, echos of Wittgenstein. So anyway the solution is to teach…wait for it…grammar! And “how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so.” Followed by although, unless and if. Really? Is it that simple? Of course students of logic know how tricky if can be but the takeaway from the article for me was that given the right analytic tools, most students can reason effectively, evaluate arguments and take and express positions articulately. Things that I thought were the province of college level philosophy boil down to basic particles of speech. Those mid-century analytic bastards were on to something.