Besides my favorite uninformed quasi-reporter Ross Douthat, the New York Times offers some space on its pages to Stanley Fish, a quasi-literary critic. Yesterday, he regaled us with one of his conservative outpourings on the nature of higher education.
His article "What Should Colleges Teach?" starts with a sentiment I actually share. Fish talks about how rare it is to see a college student (and I might add, even a professor) write a coherent sentence bereft of grammar errors and syntactic monstrosities. If only Fish could stop there! But no, he proceeds to analyze the reasons for this problem. In Fish's opinion, the main cause of this verbal impotence is that composition courses include discussions of ideological issues. Fish believes that "all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else."
The problem with this suggestion is that it is absolutely impracticable. I have had an opportunity to teach two such courses and in my experience, you need to a) suggest a topic that might interest the students enough for them to want to write a good piece about it; b) teach them how to create a convincing line of reasoning; c) show them the rhetorical means of supporting the argument; d) demonstrate how to put the product of their thinking in writing. Of course, we could teach our students the rules of writing by making them write only about the weather. However, you can't (or at least I can't) maintain their level of passion for this exciting topic until the end of the semester.
I strongly believe that the best writing is produced by people who are passionate about its content. When you are forced to write about a subject that bores you and that is irrelevant to your life, the writing will reflect your lack of interest. Bringing controversial topics into the classroom motivates the students to want to think, argue, and ultimately put their ideas down in writing.
Teaching students to write well is extremely important. If, however, they have no content to fill the beautiful form we will teach them to create, then we have failed as educators.