Trivial vs Substantive Writing

For teachers who intend the teaching of writing to further their students’ critical thinking abilities, not just any writing will do. These observations from the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

It is possible to write with an emphasis on style, variety of sentence structure, and rhetorical principles without learnign to write in a substantive manner. Rhetorically powerful writing may be, and in our culture often is, intellectually bankrupt. Many intellectually imporverished thinkers write well in the purely rhetorical sense. Propaganda. . .is often expressed in a rhetorically effective way. Political speeches empty of significant content are often rhetorically well-designed. Sophistry and self-delusion often thrive in rhetorically proficient prose.

A New York Times special supplement on education (Aug. 4, 2002) included a description of a new section in the SAT focused on a “20-minute writing exercise.” The prompt those taking the test were asked to write on was as follows: “There is always a however.” One might as justifiably ask a person to write on the theme, “There is always an always!” Or “There is never a never!” Such writing prompts are the equivalent of an intellectual Rorschach inkblot. They do not define a clear intellectual task. There is no issue to be reasoned through. Thus, the writer is encouraged to pontificate using rhetorical and stylistic devices rather than reason using intellectual good sense, to talk about nothing as if it is something.

Substantive writing requires that the writer begin with a significant, intellectually well-defined task. This writing can be assessed for clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness (rather than rhetorical style and flourish). Substantive writing enables the author to take ownership of ideas worth understanding ♦ Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (How to Write a Paragraph)

The talk about “substantive writing” shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that high school students need to be writing like Kant or Hume. When Chennell Brewer tries to unravel the mystery of a 1918 crime in her hometown of White Sulphur Springs, she’s involved in a substantive quest. So is Ronan High School student Britney Maddox, when she tells the story of her grandmother’s experiences under Hitler, or Rachel Reckin, when she gathers evidence of the role music played in helping people in Libby flourish during the Great Depression.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 02/27 at 05:32 AM
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