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Composition as Epistemology

by Peter S. Borkowski

Professors and employers complain that students are being graduated without knowing how to write well. This is not a matter of curriculum; it is really a matter of epistemology.


Many students, even from high-tier universities, graduate without knowing how to write well. It is not necessary to cite this statement because the complaint can be found anywhere on the Internet from academic resource pages and forums to major newspapers and journals. If most cannot write well, then it follows by definition that they cannot think as well as they should, for the written word is merely thought on paper. Why can't composition and critical thinking courses relieve the problem?

The difficulties come from earlier development and are epistemological problems, not pedagogical ones about the composition course itself. I want to propose a possible explanation to account for why I think this is so, why many university graduates can write only marginally better than their peers who did not pursue a university education. The possibility of improving writing skills (logical cohesion, rhetorical strategies, arguing from definitions, etc) in the composition course depends on prior cognitive development.

My original hypothesis was that difficulties in writing result from poorly designed writing courses. After several weeks of reviewing university freshman writing programs and various syllabi, one thing I noticed was that there is no consensus on what is supposed to be taught: critical thinking or academic writing or basic composition or rhetoric or the literary essay, or a combination thereof along with library skills, research methods, and vocabulary builders thrown in? The department/ faculty statements started to resemble typical replies to questions like 'What is philosophy?' — a thousand people each reply with something that in fact it really is or does but when taken collectively together gave the impression of unruliness and discord.

By the end of these several weeks I found my self asking whether everyone was talking about the same thing. Then it occurred to me that the presence of diverse aims and purposes, if even conflicting, does not necessarily entail writing difficulties in the students, for if that were true then we would be able to see, after some good time setting up the appropriate tests, in which pedagogy or method students become objectively better writers. I am not aware of such a test or result. Otherwise, I suppose I would have been told to teach by it. The problem was elsewhere.

Professors complain about the sheer amount of distractions around today. Many regret how much cell phones, iPod gadgetry, video games, and so forth hinder the concentration necessary for even basic university work. These things indeed are hindrances; this is empirically verifiable. But then when people my age and older were students, before any of this stuff was around, we found plenty of ways to distract ourselves. Plenty. Ah, fond memories they are indeed! And we managed to get our term papers in — not with the Internet and a word-processor either but with books and typewriters and correction fluid and an awe-inspiring amount of coffee.

Here I noticed a pattern, a similarity between those in my times who didn't write well, students today who do not write well, and examples of 'poor writing' that I recently collected from composition and argumentation textbooks from the 1940s and 1950s. It's not the pedagogy, it's not the silly, inane gadgets, and it isn't a matter of people in the past being more focused than those today. It's not whether the composition course is oriented more towards literary and creative writing, speech writing, argumentation analysis, social commentary, or anything else. The problem is how and what a student was taught before coming to the course.

Many professors complain about the conceptual shambles that our state high school system has left students in and this most closely gets to the source of the problem. Rather than learning the necessary skills of literacy, pupils are put through elementary and secondary curricula which mostly tell them that expressing their feelings or opinions about an issue or text is equivalent to analytic skills and, worse, that no answers are correct or incorrect. Dogmatism is not part of intellectual inquiry; however, a commitment to objective truth is necessary for accepting the possibility of proofs and refutations if anything is going to get done at all. This is how my inquiry began: students cannot be made into better writers from a writing or critical thinking course alone. There is some other formative aspect involved which begins with learning (internalizing) correct grammar from the earliest ages through stories (from nursery rhymes to parables to literature, vocabulary, and the metrics of poetry). Through these one also learns the appropriate values necessary to the activity of deliberation — and hence the term 'epistemological development'.

Grammar is logic

Stanley Fish, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, said in his lament over student writing ability: 'Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are'.[1] A decade of teaching has shown me as well that students with weak grammar write weak essays. There has been no exception to this rule. I have yet to receive an erudite and logically tight thesis essay written with poor grammar. Professor Fish believes that a road to recovery could be constructed if writing teachers would make the distinction between form and content. Form, he believes, is all that matters at a first- and second-year student's age and ability to conceptualize. Content will come later and this is consistent with the principle that the liberal arts component of a university education should be a general education, not a specialist's one.

There is no real gain by focusing on content. Many teachers believe that if we 'dialog' about an issue long enough and everybody throws his two cents in about the essay theme, usually a controversy involving personal values, somehow a critical position will follow. If experts and other informed people have difficulty coming to terms with the pressing issues of our day (abortion, euthanasia, genetically modified foods, rogue terrorist governments, and so on), why would we ever entertain the notion that nineteen-year-olds could handle them adequately? Content is really insignificant in the light of difficulties with the grammar and logic used to write about that content.

A sentence, Fish reminds us, is a set of logical relationships. This itself is not new but the implications it carries are tremendous. If a student has difficulties with grammatical relationships, then it would suggest that the logical apparatus of the mind is not fully developed or exercised to the point of being prepared to take up content. At bottom, grammatical/ logical skill means knowing how to sort things out. Knowledge of tense, mood, voice, concord, agency, and others is not a limitation or hindrance to a student's experience of English and thinking about an issue but the very key to intellectual freedom. Yet another example of how discipline liberates.

The undergraduate who would benefit from a required composition course is supposed to learn what it means to make connections, find hidden implications and assumptions, find new applications for theories, check premises and diagram arguments. The ability to do this is shown, not had by instinct. ('The fox has holes but man has not where to lay his head') We are not born with instinct to guide us — not in procuring food, not in building shelter, and it is thus interesting that clear thinking and writing must also be shown. It has been said that an artist enters an art academy as an artist, not to become one. So too students enter the composition course as a writer/ thinker to the extent which they have been prepared to write/ think. This is why Fish sagely leaves content aside and why Mortimer Adler argued that critical thinking programs won't work:

What is misconceived is not the objective itself, but rather the means for achieving it. It is characteristic of current educational thinking that, once an objective of schooling comes to the fore and receives national recognition; the means proposed for achieving it consist of setting up specially devised programs for the purpose. In some cases, that might be the right thing to do. But with regard to thinking, it is completely wrong. I would almost say that, for critical thinking, devising a special program to produce the desired result is a chimerical effort. It cannot be done.[2]

When we say that we teach critical thinking, we are not transferring such ability to students as one would install new software in a computer. Skills can be shown (e.g., the difference between a logical-chain and a cause-effect chain of reasoning, methods of arrangement, or rhetorical devices like accumulation, hypostasis, and irony) but the extent to which a student can employ them naturally is something which is obtained much earlier in life during the critical phase of epistemological development.

The same cognitive faculty used to recognize an inconsistency or contradiction in grammar is the same one used to identify problems with other types of logical relationships. This is the logos of the mind. Fish even had an exercise for teaching the principles of logical relationships in his composition courses: the students had to get together in small groups and construct a grammar for an artificial language. This is because grammar prepares one to think critically. Consider: if students cannot sense the problems or oddities in these sentences, will they not have difficulty diagramming entire arguments? Knowing the errors in each of these sentences (or at least sensing some peculiarity) concerns logical aptitude.[3]

* Her mother died when she was eighteen. * A dog can easily tell if people are afraid of them. * Horror films bring to light a subconscious fear and shows a character who succeeds in coping with it. * Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana. * The manager, as well as the pitcher and catcher, were fined. * One of its most notable features are the lounges. * At my grandmother's house vegetables were only served because meat was forbidden. * Kicked aside and lying under the bed, the professor reached for his shoes. * In my attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole. * Being with Jennifer more and more enrages me. * Writing clearly is difficult. * By the time I arrived the party started. * Having been up to now running already ten minutes, he is tired. It is easy to see why educators in the past divided the septennium into the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). In the trivium, we see that logos = three subjects:

1. The linguistic essence of man (language, grammar)

2. The analytic essence (reason, logic)

3. Sensitivity to aspects of persuasiveness (emotion, rhetoric)

We may note on this point the significance of studying a foreign language and how it fortifies cognitive development so well. We see this often in the arguments of those who promote the study of the classical languages Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. While their literatures provide us with our cultural values, the principle benefit of studying these grammars is development in logical cognition.

To pursue logical relationships is to be grammatically in shape. To be in such conceptual health is to see that one thing is correct and another not correct. The process of arriving at this judgment is deliberation and one cannot deliberate unless one can sense which of two things is better and why (e.g., whether two words, two sentences, or two arguments). And now it is easy to see what Stanley Fish meant when he said that 'students cannot write clean sentences'. Grammar allows the analytic and persuasive faculties to run properly. This is one reason why the public school system is so often criticized and even detested by so many. The greatest and most legitimate complaint is about ignoring the importance of developing the intellect when and how it needs to be developed so that it can participate in our university courses later on in life.

Epistemology and values

Logic and reason alone are not always enough to persuade readers. In fact, dull, uninspired language might even detract from the argument's pull. Such is the mysterious condition of mankind: the sweetness of language elicits one reaction while the power of intellect might produce a completely different one. Yet behind the tendency to separate logic from persuasion (rhetoric) is a feature of epistemology which ties the two back together: value. This arch-value in our culture is deliberation, that preference for accepting all evidence, not willfully excluding or suppressing evidence, considering all sides of an issue irrespective of political, religious, ethnic, or gender factors, and fairness to all — i.e., intellectual honesty. But it too is not had by instinct; it must be taught.

Many educators separate language and reason as if the former is poetic, fanciful, and irrational and the latter is clinically sterile truth or falsity and divorced entirely from any subjective notions such as taste, style, flair, creativity, and the like. The school of linguistic analysis, we may remark, was driven by the conviction that our speech does things we are not aware of. These two distinctive features of mankind, speech and reason, come together in deliberation. And developing a propensity for deliberation, as opposed to caprice, self-righteousness, insolence, bias, or stubbornness, is a cultural value. The power behind speech is the power of reason or rational judgment. 'It is not what you put into your mouth that defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man' (Matt. 15:11). 'If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body' (James 3:2). Human agency is most characterized by this deliberation to say or do one thing in one way as opposed to another in any other way and this is the very basis of most composition tasks — defend or refute a proposition.

If cultural value pertains to the study of language, I see in this Aristotle's axiom that a child, in order to receive higher learning and to do critical study later on, must be instilled with 'just sentiments' or 'correct sentiments' early on. In addition to discipline, such character traits like temperament, patience, and a sense of why one thing is preferable to another are habituated from an early age with the appropriate stories — and stories are values expressed in a verbal medium. These 'correct values' are transmitted during the early years of schooling through stories (hymns, songs, poems, legends, parables, etc) and, then as now, are (should be) used to teach correct grammar as well as correct values.

Let's say 'literature' to encompass all the various kinds of story-media. This word 'value' still carries currency in education theory today because it has very favorable, positive connotations; it is even used in pedagogies that strive to eliminate traditional values and to replace them with politically correct pseudo-values (also called 'attitudes'), such as is done in pedagogies like Values Clarification.[4] With grammar come stories and with stories come values: all embedded in the literature. Stories are crafted on the basis of plot structure (also a form of logical construction) and so represent a holistic network of epistemology.

It is interesting to remark that in a society which scoffs at values, literacy is so imperiled.

The one point which all professors will agree on is that we are supposed to be improving students. Richard Weaver expressed this value when he wrote that 'Every educator who presumes to speak about his profession has in mind some aim, goal, or purpose that he views as beneficial'[5] because the term 'better' requires a normative or prescriptive background against which one can say that he is bettering his students. Betterment is seen by some educators today as 'a better attitude' more in line with political agendas while others believe that betterment comes from providing students with logical aptitude so that they can deliberate better on their own terms. In this way, the ability to participate effectively in a writing or critical thinking course depends in large measure on how students were 'bettered' beforehand and to what extent their own ideas of 'becoming better' approximate or deviate from their professors' ideas of such.

Weaver identified three ways that academics have esteemed betterment and valued rhetoric and composition over the course of history: speaking truth and an aptitude for logic (vere loqui), speaking correctly and an aptitude for form and decorum (recte loqui), and speaking pragmatically or usefully (utiliter loqui) — that which is taught in our own day.[6] In this mode, students at the secondary and higher levels are taught to speak in terms of utility. By utility, we can see two in particular being emphasized in various department home pages: marketing and 'business communication' on the one hand and politically correct attitude formation on the other.

The skills vere loqui (logic) and recte loqui (rhetoric) differ from utility because they are analytical. (Many today would consider business communication to be an area of rhetoric but we will not go into whether this is accurate here.) The trend over the last half century has been to discard both dialectic truth (logic) and correct speech (rhetoric) as social constructions. Speaking politically correct responses and the ability to write an advertising line or grant proposal is the new rhetoric. This value is what is pushed in the secondary school and university curricula and we wonder why analytic skills are missing in graduates. One might say that utiliter loqui represents the consensus and is most relevant to students' education and job, but then we should do away altogether with the idea of producing critical thinkers. Critical thinkers speak in terms of truth, not of utility.

Good writers cannot emerge from a system which teaches, either directly or implicitly, that language is a personal matter and in its studied form is a pragmatic tool for buying something or closing a deal.

Epistemology and stories: why reading is important

Basic education in ancient times was physical and intellectual. The physical included hunting and sport; the intellectual consisted in learning proper values in the kinds of stories (literature) we mentioned already (poetry, legends, fables, parables, history, etc). It was through stories that the Greeks in the classical period learned the values appropriate to the Greek ethos. That which went beyond the ethos then was un-ethical. Simultaneously, in its holistic way, these stories taught vocabulary, grammar, meter, and rhyme and all of these are in essence analytical. It is very difficult to separate the literary medium from cognitive development. And this is why the textbook industry today is so highly political rather than educational in its orientation. With this, we are in a position to remark another vital relationship between language and reason.

In order to learn grammar, we need sentences. Where to get these sentences from? Up until industrial times, before compulsory schooling and textbook companies existed, canonical stories of the culture's tradition were used. They served to transmit the correct values (ethos) of culture while instructing in the arts of language. They were not for entertainment or studied in a comparative manner; they informed people about where they came from, what dangers await the unscrupulous, what joys await the prudent, and about the proper hierarchies between people and between people and God. Textbooks now transmit correct ideological allegiance.[7] What kind of stories work best for instilling grammar is beyond my purpose here. I merely wish to point out that literacy and epistemological development depend on whether the texts used in early education cover various analytic forms (meter and rhyme, grasping the moral of a text, induction and deduction of the moral or central message, grammatical complexity, and so on).

From the beginning of one's schooling after infancy ('infant' comes from a Latin word that means 'non-speaker'), one is exposed to the richness, texture, and range of possibility in language through stories, lyrics, poetry, etc. Under the heading 'stories' we may list rhetoric on the basis that rhetoric is the art of telling something. From the earliest age, children start learning figures of speech through nursery rhymes and stories like The Little Train That Could. Figures of arrangement are introduced to children by means of narratives and plot structures. Parables and fables instruct not only plot but again concur with the instruction of correct values and ethical behavior in addition to being analytical. Moreover, their metaphorical nature sharpens the conceptual faculty to make correct connections and see the implications of going against the parable's moral. It is no coincidence that children instinctively make up their own words, secret language codes, and their own stories on the basis of the narrative structures they receive from parents and teachers. These are natural exercises in creativity and developing cognition, they are epistemological; hence, the great responsibility of elementary and secondary teachers.

The common assumption now is that nursery rhymes, fantastic tales, songs, and word games are entertainments that have been superseded by technologically better (thus 'relevant') computer games and that young children need their computer skills for a rapidly changing world (i.e., utility), irrespective of what the computer games are: instruction and leisure have coalesced into 'computer skills'. We may remark the eerie expression 'computer literacy' here. It may sound reactionary, but the stories central to our cultural ethos and values, whether orally transmitted or written, are significant to our network of grammar-logic-vocabulary-deliberation and should be encouraged for the sake of meaningful participation in school and university later on.

If we can list grammar and logic and values under the heading of stories we must also include vocabulary. Language is described these days as 'dynamic' and not confined to any one social class, that it is a living thing by way of the 'varieties of English' that should be promoted as all having equal worth. There is some sense to this, but not to the point of compromising grammatical-logical relationships. And whatever their background, most people do need to have a passable stock of words from their secondary education and from daily life generally to participate in college classes. This is what the SAT and other English placement tests measure.

However, this is a superficial level, not the epistemological one we are after. If we consider that transmission of an idea to a listener/ reader, it will be apparent that the goal is to reproduce the idea to the listener/ reader exactly as it is in your mind and this involves deliberation, which in turn means finding the best word, where 'best' = 'most accurate'. And when we deliberate which word(s) to use, we see two important points. First, that correct understanding depends on finding the correct words and this is the logical process of identification. Second, there is consideration of the listener/ reader and how the choice of word(s) will be taken, and this is a matter of rhetoric — knowing one's audience. But it all starts earlier than freshman composition at college. Knowing the difference between the words amoral and immoral or ingenious and ingenuous for the SAT does not entail that one can use them fluently in writing tasks and this is why, in terms of developing literacy, such things should be learned at an early age.

Concluding remarks

Teaching which serves to draw out a student's position and then merely magnify it is really an exercise in developing the skill of rationalizing. Beyond vocational data and tekhne, the value of a college's liberal arts education is largely the ability to scrutinize one's own views and those of others — both those whom one agrees and disagrees with. This is an epistemological value.

I have briefly outlined what I consider to be essential to preparing students to be critical thinkers and competent writers — and thus to what extent they can learn at all in a composition or critical thinking course. All of these things come together as the epistemological development that is necessary for being able to participate as a critical thinker at university.

To be a critical thinker, a value for truth is also needed and that presupposes the prior conviction that truth is not relative. This value of the critical mind which I describe is eloquently and incisively expressed by historian of philosophy Jorge Gracia thus:

The methodological principle is that it is always best to give the strongest possible interpretation of an argument or a view, particularly if [it] undermines a position that we currently hold. If our aim is to see our position fully tested, the best way to do that is to meet it head on and answer the strongest objections that could be brought out against it. That is more than to follow the dictum 'Know thine enemies'; it is to hold that one should give battle to the strongest forces that can be mustered against oneself, so that the victory will be decisive and not Pyrrhic. Besides, there is always the possibility that we might be wrong and thus that the development of the strongest possible case for a position contrary to ours might make us see where we are mistaken.[8]

This feature of critical discourse points directly to personal and social achievement more than does any other aspect of our cultural and intellectual heritage. But for it to happen, students need to be prepared much earlier than university.

There is no use debating about how to teach the principles of argumentation and rhetoric in any course if one's students have not been prepared conceptually by parents and teachers to receive these things. The best way that a composition instructor can better students is, at the very least, to be sure that they start writing 'clean sentences' and to see logical relationships and categories.


1. Stanley Fish, 'Devoid of Content', NY Times, 31.V.05.

2. Mortimer Adler, 'Critical Thinking Programs: Why They Won't Work' at The Radical Academy philosophy resource center

3. Sylvan Barnet and Marcia Stubbs, Barnet & Stubb's Practical Guide to Writing, Little, Brown, 1983.

4. The 'values' of progressive educators are certainly not values in the way philosophers speak of them. Other pedagogies concerned with attitude formation include Cooperative Learning, Mastery Learning, Critical Thinking (especially as it is in the International Baccalaureate), Integrative Education, Life-Role Competencies, Mind Maps, Outcome Based Education, Standards-Driven Education, and World-Class Education. I'd use composition instructor Nan Miller's expression 'postmodern moonshine' to describe them.

5. Richard Weaver, 'Education and the Individual' (1959), In Defense of Tradition, edited by Ted J. Smith III, Liberty Fund, 2000; p.186.

6. Richard Weaver, 'To Write the Truth' (1948), Ibid.; pp.228-235.

7. See Diane Ravich, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Knopf, 2003.

8. Jorge Gracia, Philosophy and Its History: Issues in Philosophical Historiography, SUNY Press, 1992; p.254.

© Peter Stefan Borkowski 2008


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