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Learning to Write is Painful (And Maybe Has to Be)

My friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing about this essay in the Atlantic, reflects on teaching and learning writing:

I always come back to the example of my father-in-law. He left formal schooling at 14 and experienced it as a liberation. And yet he has better spelling and grammar than the median student at the top-ranked law and business schools I attended. This is because he went to school before ‘68, when the basics of writing and math were drilled into you relentlessly….

This is basically what happened to France over the past 50 years, and the results have been horrible. Nobody can speak or write proper French, and I do mean nobody—again, people who did well in top law schools, journalists certainly, etc. And obviously while this was driven by a left-wing agenda, the primary victims were the poor. Kids like me whose parents were highly literate had plenty of stuff to “catch.” The others, not so much.

And there’s a part of me that goes, see, this is the fault of all the HIPPIES who want kids to DISCOVER things through a journey of self-actualization and discovery! Bring back the nuns!

The same is true of my mom, who graduated from high school at age 15, in rural northern Alabama, and yet writes simply elegant, grammatically flawless English (and with lovely penmanship to boot). These comments remind me of George Orwell’s great essay about his schooldays, “Such, Such Were the Joys”, in which he lays out straightforwardly and without sentimentality the absolute cruelty of the regime under which he was educated:

It was in ‘classics’ that the real strain came. Looking back, I realize that I then worked harder than I have ever done since, and yet at the time it never seemed possible to made quite the effort that was demanded of one. We would sit round the long shiny table, made of some very pale-coloured hard wood, with Sambo goading, threatening, exhorting, sometimes joking, very occasionally praising, but always prodding, prodding away at one’s mind to keep it up to the right pitch of concentration, as one keeps a sleepy person awake by sticking pins in him.

‘Go on, you little slacker! Go on, you idle, worthless little boy! The whole trouble with you is that you’re bone and horn idle. You eat too much, that’s why. You wolf down enormous meals, and then when you come here you’re half asleep. Go on, now, put your back into it. You’re not thinking. Your brain doesn’t sweat.’

He would tap away at one’s skull with his silver pencil, which, in my memory, seems to have been about the size of a banana, and which certainly was heavy enough to raise a bump: or he would pull the short hairs round one’s ears, or, occasionally, reach out under the table and kick one’s shin. On some days nothing seemed to go right, and then it would be ‘All right, then, I know what you want. You’ve been asking for it the whole morning. Come along, you useless little slacker. Come into the study.’ And then whack, whack, whack, and back one would come, red-wealed and smarting, … to settle down to work again. This did not happen very often, but I do remember, more than once, being led out of the room in the middle of a Latin sentence, receiving a beating and then going straight ahead with the same sentence, just like that.

And then, as is typical of Orwell at his best, comes the unexpected kicker:

It is a mistake to think such methods do not work. They work very well for their special purpose. Indeed, I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment. The boys themselves believed in its efficacy. There was a boy named Beacham, with no brains to speak of, but evidently in acute need of a scholarship. Sambo was flogging him towards the goal as one might do with a foundered horse. He went up for a scholarship at Uppingham, came back with a consciousness of having done badly, and a day or two later received a severe beating for idleness. ‘I wish I’d had that caning before I went up for the exam,’ he said sadly — a remark which I felt to be contemptible, but which I perfectly well understood.

I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment. What a terrible thing to say — but what if it’s true? What if there are certain valuable skills that children aren’t going to learn unless we let Sambo have his riding crop and the nuns their hand-smacking rulers? I wouldn’t make that choice — I wouldn’t let some sadist with a riding crop within a mile of young boys, and I wouldn’t let the nuns have their beloved rulers back — but the belief that certain unpleasant rote-oriented skills can be learned without strong negative reinforcement may be a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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