A few generations ago, people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything else could always find a job in the news business and do pretty well in it. All they had to know was how to think logically and how to write clearly and pretty much everybody with at least a C average, back in those days, could do both.
Need a job? Go be a reporter until you find yourself. Just maybe you’ll discover that you like the gig. If not, it will put a few dollars in your pocket and teach you how to work hard and meet deadlines while you ponder the future.
From coast to coast, in small towns and big cities, kids learned grammar and sentence structure and had to master expository writing. I remember the red ink in the margins of my early efforts: “Clarity.” “Diction.” “Grammar.” “Logic.” Seeing those words on the page meant those things were missing or problematic.
So much has changed. An education is no longer an end unto itself, a good thing to have because it will make you a better person, a better member of the community, a better citizen — a thoughtful, independent person who can express him or herself effectively.
More than ever, education now is about the fragmented national economy and finding a place in it. Getting an education is just another consumer item now, with students and their parents publicly assessing the quality of their teachers and how much bang they’re getting for their tuition or tax bucks. That makes students the judges which, in some ways, turns the academic world upside down.
Everyone’s heard the bad news about American kids lagging behind those in many other countries with their math and science skills. I don’t recall hearing much about their verbal and writing skills. But as someone who has hired many young people over the years to work as cub reporters, it’s my opinion that writing skills have been on the decline for decades.
One clue is the fact that so many job applicants submit clips from their college newspapers that are not hard news stories but music or movie reviews, opinion pieces, or personal essays. Or there might be a light feature, written in the first person and full of hyperbole, as might be expected of a barely rewritten press release.
Self-indulgence doesn’t work well in a hard news story. Is that why nobody wants to write them anymore? It has been many, many years since I’ve seen a good hard news story in a job applicant’s clips. It gives me the impression that a lot of high school and college newspapers are full of fluffy writing. That means, to me, their publications aren’t really newspapers and the students writing for them are not learning how to be journalists.
How would they know the difference? So few young people read newspapers. They don’t even watch network news, which is no longer an example of well-written, well-edited journalism anyway: stories are pretty vague and fuzzy and too full of unanswered questions. But it’s about as close as mass culture can get these days to old-fashioned news, at least in its essential form.
You may ask: So what, Mr. Grump? So what if kids are clueless about old-fashioned newspaper writing?
A person who could write a good news story, if required to do so in some gruesome spot test, knows how to:
• Think logically and critically in order to assess a topic and decide what questions need to be to asked to fully explain it from beginning to end.
• Suppress personal opinion in order to anticipate all the questions and gather all the necessary facts.
• Deal in specifics instead of generalities.
• Use simple, clear and precise language.
• Tell the difference between baloney and substance.
• Set priorities in terms of importance in order to properly organize the facts.
• Exercise judgment in pondering the hows, the whys and the “so whats” of a story.
If you grew up reading newspapers, and could ape their writing style, you taught yourself a lot of these skills. If you grow up Tweeting and texting and throwing up blurbs on Facebook, you might never learn any of it. One effect of that is you’ll lack the ability to think critically and you’ll be an easy mark for corporate and political marketing in this age of hype, infomercials, advertorials, secret sponsorships, product placements, public places named for big companies and vending machines in the schools.
I’m getting so cranky I think there may be a plot at work to achieve that effect. One little clue as an example: the media no longer refers to the Democratic Caucus in the House; it refers to the Democrat Caucus, with the word “Democrat” sort of spat in contempt when spoken. Who masterminded that weird shift in political correctness? It sure wasn’t the heirs of Strunk or White. I bet it was Karl Rove … and our noble independent media went right along with him.
Schools should be trying to counteract the aspects of our culture that degrade expository writing skills and therefore basic common-sense thinking skills. It would be a great idea for high schools to make freshmen learn how to write a good news story. It could be fun. It could save the country.