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A View from Herb Brody

Write Like a Lobotomized Weasel

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen. The square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square of the two sides. And a persuasive essay has exactly 5 paragraphs: one to…

  • May 25, 2004

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen. The square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square of the two sides. And a persuasive essay has exactly 5 paragraphs: one to state the theme, three (count’m, three) to present the three supporting arguments, and one to conclude and restate the main point. That’s what schools are teaching, anyway. And one development that is driving the dismayingly rigid approach to writing is the emergence of computers to score standardized tests, writes Crispin Sartwell, who teaches political science at Dickinson College. Sartwell, writing in the Los Angeles Times, says:

The teaching of writing as a machine procedure gains momentum by the day. In Indiana this year, the junior-year English essay will be graded by computer, and similar experiments have been tried in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon. The SAT and the ACT are planning to test the new computer-grading software as well. That is a reductio ad absurdum of the entire idea of learning. If this is knowledge, then truth and beauty reside only in ignorance.


[T]he idea that computers can grade essays in the first place is one that could only have occurred to people who have no idea how to write or how to read.

It’s hardly surprising, given the mandate to test, and test, and test, and at the same time to make do with less and less money, that school systems are retreating to this kind of mechanized and ultimately deadening instruction. And yes, it’s probably better to teach students some sense of how to structure an essay, no matter how mechanical, than not to teach them at all. But that’s setting the bar rather low. Sartwell may be treading a wee bit far out onto the rhetorical limb when he writes that “the people who create and enforce the templates are, not to put too fine a point on it, people without understanding or imagination, lobotomized weasels for whom any effort of thought exceeds their strength.” But still. This practice smacks entirely too much of the technology tail wagging the pedagogical dog.

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