Jun 25, 2013

    Humanities key to writing well

    The New York Times

    IN THE past few years, I've taught non-fiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

    Each semester, I hope - and fear - that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester, I discover that they don't.

    They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasise any thematic or ideological notion. And they get good grades for doing just that.

    But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them - no.

    That kind of writing - clear, direct, humane - and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

    But the humanities have fallen on hard times.

    Undergraduates will tell you that they're under pressure - from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large - to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs.

    Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

    In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. This year, they are economics and political science.

    Parents have always been worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for?

    Yet, former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and more.

    What many undergraduates do not know - and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them - is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be.

    That gift comprises clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

    Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students - whether they're undergraduates, graduate students or from a junior faculty - I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn't acquire earlier in life.

    They don't call that skill the humanities. They don't call it literature. They call it writing - the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

    But writing well isn't merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

    No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy. But everyone who possesses it - no matter how or when it was acquired - knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

    The writer is an American non-fiction author and newspaper editor.