Arnold Kling  

Collegiate Writing

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George Leef writes,


On October 2, The Conference Board, an organization of American businesses, released a survey entitled “Are They Really Ready for Work?” The report, which was based on responses from 431 employers, hardly gives a ringing endorsement of our education system. Only 10 percent of the employers said that they find graduates of 2-year colleges “excellent” in terms of their overall preparation for work and only 24 percent rated graduates of 4-year colleges as “excellent.”

The greatest area of deficiency identified by the business respondents was in communications. Roughly half of new workforce entrants with 2-year degrees and more than a quarter with 4-year degrees were rated as “deficient” with regard to their ability to write and understand written material. That finding is not surprising, given the results of last year’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which concluded that literacy among college graduates was shockingly low – and falling.

What makes this so disturbing is that when asked to name the most important skills for new workers to have, business leaders said that those same communication skills were by far the most important.


For the class I taught at George Mason, I assigned a lot of writing and made it clear that the quality of writing would be 50 percent of the grade on each paper. This is very labor intensive compared with giving multiple choice tests and running them through a scanner. But I think it adds a lot more value.

I wonder what the consequences will be of this widespread inability to write. Some possibilities:

1. Writing will continue to be a prized skill. Those who cannot write will be relatively unproductive on average. Those who can write will earn a premium on average.

2. The employment mix will shift, with an increase in jobs that do not require good writing and a reduction in jobs that do.

3. The younger generation is adapting to technological change. Communication forms other than traditional writing will become more important. The ability to communicate rapidly, as in cell phone text messaging, may be more useful than the ability to write traditional sentences and paragraphs.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
blink writes:

I agree that typical collegiate writing is abysmal, but is this new? Is the average ability to communicate in writing worse that it was 10 or 50 years ago? If so, it makes sense to inquire into the implications; otherwise, we are already living the implications. Perhaps a more interesting analysis would be to imagine the effects of dramatic improvement in graduates’ writing ability.

On the whole, I see an increase in the “writing premium” that makes bad writing more noticeable, but I do not see a decrease in writing ability. For comparison, it may be worth considering college graduates ability to communicate in foreign languages.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Writing is simply the interface to understanding, analyzing, and synthesizing. The only people I've run into who were good thinkers and terrible writers were super technical people, mostly introvert types.

I like your teaching approach in focussing on the writing. Obviously, it's not a writing course. As an undergrad 15 years ago, it seemed weird to me that technical majors were required to take a single 4 unit writing course rather than have some written component to every 4 unit course they took. Internet mailing lists were how I practiced my own writing skills in college. I bet blogs serve a similar purpose today.

Snark writes:

I fear #3 comes closest to predicting the future of the pen.

Math has already given way to the calculator. Writing, it appears, will eventually succumb to speech recognition. The computer has become our new beast of burden and a proxy for human reasoning. Why break a mental sweat when technology can do it for us?

My prediction? A soon-to-be-released mockumentary entitled: Intellectual Obesity: The Thinkers Pandemic.

matt writes:

A decrease in jobs requiring good writing skills and technology that changes traditional (written)communication needs will put downward pressure on wages for jobs requiring good writing skills. Suspect I should pretend to have not well writing skills.

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