Writing in Times of Repression
(National Council of Teachers of English Convention, Nashville TN, November 2006)
by John H. Ritter
“You teach a child to learn and he or her will pass a literacy test.”
—George W. Bush, speech on Educational Reform, Feb 21, 2001
“Americans,” we have been told by George Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, “need to watch what they say.” In fact, if we don’t bother to watch what we say, we now know, the FBI and other police agencies have no qualms about doing it for us.
How does this new, repressive atmosphere affect the creative spirit?
Writing, I believe, should be full of ideas that spring from critical thinking. It should be full of surprises. And as often as possible, writing should be dangerous.
The saddest thing an adult can do, as a role model for children, is to give in to fear—particularly when that fear is orchestrated by the national government. Yet, we can readily cite populations throughout history where adults have done just that.
As a Young Adult novelist, I receive in the mail a fair number of class-assigned essays on my books. And so far, the only real danger I see on these pages is in style, not substance. The essays are typically formulaic with their five paragraphs, a thesis sentence in the first paragraph specifying the three main points of the paper, and each paragraph neatly packaged into four to seven sentence clusters, containing sentences composed of only the requisite eight to ten words. When students are concentrating on producing writing within a rigid structure, their ideas become bland and uninteresting.
I no longer wonder about the real reasons underlying the White House effort to get our children to think and write in this way. It’s because this administration is really counting on schools to help prevent the majority of children from becoming free thinkers—that is, free from becoming dangerous.
While writing my novels, I constantly battle to express my ideas, observations, insights, notions, and opinions through my plots and characters, in ways that will generate and provoke critical thinking. And I believe there is really only one rule for any kind of writing, from a personal letter to an editorial to a screenplay: It must be interesting. And to be interesting, it must contain surprises (i.e., revelations of uncommon knowledge or an unexpected twist). Where do surprises come from? Ideas—fresh ideas—which are spawned by research that is infused with critical thinking and life experience. Ponder any newfound fact or tidbit of knowledge, turn it on its side or head or otherwise examine it from weird and new angles, and you have a new idea. Fresh, outrageous, opinionated, and even contrarian ideas are worth writing about. Why? Because they are interesting.
What does repressed, formulaic writing give to the world? Uninformed, opinionless, and think-alike people—ideal for the corporate and consumer culture, but not so hot for the natural, spiritual, or creative arenas of our lives. Yet, in reality, isn’t this what the White House, through No Child Left Behind, has asked us to train our children to become?
Throughout the history of this country, certain populations were prevented from learning how to read and write, either by legal statute or by lack of educational funding (still occurring today). On purpose? Of course. Why? Because education leads to thinking for oneself, and, as any slave owner would tell you, that’s the last thing they want to see. It’s a dangerous thing.
In order to contain our children’s natural, but pesky, forays into critical thinking and dissent today, this White House has looked past the slave-owners and borrowed from the Jim Crow South. We now spend an inordinate amount of time teaching our kids to think and write in artificial and restrictive ways. We teach them to follow the formula. We teach them to avoid opinions and only spout facts. This we do over and over again—so they get good at it, good at learning to “watch what they say.” In fact we convince them that their futures will become witheringly hopeless unless they get into the best colleges in order to get the best jobs to earn the top amounts of money.
Keep them from thinking, keep them from expressing dissent, keep them from questioning the status quo. This is the strategy that has worked so well for banana republics and dictatorships, and the US now has a president who is happy to bury the educators of the nation with this busywork alternative to actual teaching, learning, and skeptical, scientific thinking in order to keep the whole population in line with the old slave-owners’ philosophy that ideas are dangerous.
Well, they’re right. Good ideas are certainly dangerous to their ways of thinking.
As a nation, we have had the thinking scared out of us. It's no secret that our textbooks, and even our standardized tests, have been sanitized. They've been spayed and neutered of their important ideas. All the tough questions have been removed.
As our president once said, “This is historical times.”
One of the worst notions we can give a child is to pass along the idea that good writing can be accomplished by a formula—and not so the writing can be improved, but so it can be measured.
Are there any rules for good writing? Only one that I can think of. It must be interesting. And really good writing should always carry an element of danger. —John H. Ritter (© 2006)