Monday, November 23, 2015


"The physicist who wishes to understand the problems of the social sciences with the help of an analogy from his own field would have to imagine a world in which he knew by direct observation the inside of the atoms and had neither the possibility of making experiments with lumps of matter nor opportunity to observe more than the interactions of a comparatively few atoms during a limited period." (F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science)

One way to understand a "knowledge society" is as a society in which social problems are presumed to arise from ignorance. The solution to these problems, therefore, is to be found in their careful study, resulting in greater knowledge. The ignorance that underlies a social problem, meanwhile, may be of one of two kinds. The social problem may arise from ignorance among certain individuals or groups within society; these people are ignorant of something that the rest of the society has knowledge of. Alternatively, the social problem may arise from a general ignorance—from an absence, anywhere in society, of the needed knowledge. The first kind of problem is to be solved by education, the second, by science.

The particular social problem that interests me here, of course, is the sorry state of "the prose of the world". While there is no shortage of writing in the world, its ability to represent the world (the facts of which it is composed, "everything that is the case") is doubtful at best. In particular, the genre known as "academic" or "scholarly" writing is falling into increasing disrepair and, accordingly, disrepute.

The conventional wisdom among academic writing instructors is that we need more research and more teaching in the area. That is, it is approached as any other social problem in the knowledge society. (It should be noted that writing instructors are natural ideologues of the knowledge society. It's in our interest.) The problem is that students don't know how to write. Some of what they need to know we already know and only need to impart to them; some of it, however, requires careful "scientific" study of the problem—field work, discourse analysis, etc.

I disagree with the conventional view. I don't think the problem of academic writing stems from ignorance about writing, neither the student's nor the teacher's. We don't need to know more about writing to recover our prose faculties. We just need to write more.

As such, inspired by Hayek's words in the epigraph, I want to somewhat brashly declare a counter-revolution in writing instruction. Instead of approaching the problem of writing "from the outside", i.e., as something to be studied by looking at the surfaces of the students' texts, comparing them to the surfaces of exemplary writing, and then deriving "rules" for good writing that the students, it seems, need to learn, I want to insist that we "know by direct observation" how good writing works. Both we, ourselves, and they, our students, can recognize a clearly written text that yields an understanding of a particular set of facts. We can also recognize when a text of our own making is clear and clean.

With a moment's preparation, anyone can sit down for 27-minutes and experience both the difficulty and the satisfaction, the joy and the pain, of writing down what you know in a coherent paragraph. In that experience, repeated hundreds of times in the course of an education, and then thousands of times again throughout a lifetime, lies the alleged "secret" of good writing. No amount of experimentation with lumps of text will more effectively reveal the "mystery" of writing or shed light into the darkness of our supposed ignorance of the matter.

Let's stop pretending we don't understand how to solve this problem. If our students wrote paragraphs for half an hour a day, 32 weeks of the year, (that's 80 hours per year) the prose of the world would be in good hands. Today, I'm afraid, our prose is manufactured in the devil's workshop.

No comments: