Wednesday, March 15, 2017


“Contentless Writing”

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

Educational Leadership
October 2006, Volume 64, Number 2, pp. 42-46

“Reading maketh a Full man, Conference a Ready man, and Writing an Exact man.”
                                                          Francis Bacon, 1625

    Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, he had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized he had given his speech. Fortunately an alert reporter near the President had made notes and the words were taken down and preserved. But, short as it was, it began with a date and a fact, the sort of factual content which is being drained away from the writing of students in our schools.

    The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who had been asked how she felt about the essays on her business school aptitude test being assessed by computer. She replied that she didn’t mind, because what was important was not what she said, but how she said it.

    Of course while style, fluency, tone, correct grammar and the like are important in writing, folks of the old school like me think that content has value as well. But the new SAT writing test guidelines for Readers say that they must not take off for mistakes of fact, and they are to score the essays “holistically” at the rate of 30 per hour.

    Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times, in an article last year, reported that the the rules for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not allow dictionaries, but “when it comes to the writing section, there’s one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps them make their point...making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL.”

    Lest you conclude that writing without content, or writing nonfiction with fictional content (Think: A Million Pieces) is limited to the Left Coast, consider the comment of Lucy Calkins, Head of the Reading and Writing Program at Teachers College, Columbia, who was not too long ago described in Education Week as “The Moses of Reading and Writing” in American education. She teaches writing to huge numbers of classroom teachers, and has a long waiting list for her workshops. When I asked her if she could recommend to her teachers that they have their students write some short factual history essays, her reply was: “I teach writing. I don’t get into content that much.”

    Now, anyone reading this will no doubt think that all writing has to have some content, or the page would be empty, and they are right. So what does go on the page? The National Commission on Writing in the Schools, in their 2003 report on the absence of writing in our schools, gave a clue to the writing that they like in the only quotation from the work of a high school student in their report: They said that the following passage from Michael, a high school student, showed “how powerfully children can express their emotions.”

The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is seen as the gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in our schools, but here is an example of the sort of writing for which they gave an “Excellent” rating in their most recent test of writing by high school students (when most students are scoring “Basic” or “Below Basic” in writing). The student had been asked to write a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, he wrote:

High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life.

It appears that the sort of writing that is favored by Professors of writing, and the National Commission on Writing in the School, and Washington state, and NAEP, at least at the high school level, might be fairly described as emotional, personal, and/or fictional nonfiction.

If this was the sort of writing which will be required in college courses in history, economics,  political science and the like, not to mention in business, government and other lines of work, perhaps that would not matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, and others have substituted fiction for fact in their professional lives, for instance in journalism.

The problem is that students must be prepared to know facts, dates, and the actual views of real experts and authors, in order to write the term papers they will be asked for in college and beyond, and The Boston Globe has reported that of those students who receive diplomas in Massachusetts high schools and go to community colleges, 63% are in remedial courses, and of those who go to four-year colleges, 34% are in remedial courses.

The Business Roundtable in 2004, reported that in a survey of member companies, they said they were spending over $3,000,000,000 (3 billion dollars) each year in remedial writing courses not just for their hourly employees, but for equal numbers of their salaried employees as well.

As it happens, there are teachers and students in our high schools who know that writing serious factual research papers in history is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, as well as a superb way to learn history and to see what it is like to be a scholar. The Concord Review, the only journal in the world for the academic papers of high school students, has published 726 (1,230) history essays by students from 44 states (and 40 other countries) since 1987. 

What sort of writing are these students doing? Jessica Leight, for example, got interested enough in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s to spend several months on an independent study in her Junior year at a public high school in Massachusetts, and she wrote a 13,000-word paper which won a Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize after being published in The Concord Review. She has now graduated summa cum laude from Yale and is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford [She since earned a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT, and is now teaching at American University]. She found Anne Hutchinson’s independence inspiring, and admired her defense during the excommunication trial:

...This bitter speech, made by a man who had seen his entire career threatened by the woman now standing before him, opened a trial marked by extraordinary vindictiveness on the part of the men presiding. Why? Because their regulatory power had been, up to this point, thwarted. Hutchinson had done nothing in public, nothing that could be clearly seen and defined, nothing that could be clearly punished. The principal accusation leveled against her was failure to show proper respect to the ministers, but again, she had made no public speeches or declarations, and the court would soon find that producing evidence of her insolence was very difficult.

    The assembly did not immediately strike to the heart of the matter: Hutchinson’s disparagement of the ministers of the colony as under a covenant of works. Instead, the presiding ministers first accused her of disobeying the commandment to obey one’s father and one’s mother by not submitting to the ‘fathers of the commonwealth,’ as Winthrop termed it. Next, Hutchinson’s meetings were condemned, despite her citation of a rule in Titus exhorting the elder women to teach the younger. In the debate of these points, Hutchinson’s scintillating wit showed itself to best advantage; eventually, Dudley jumped in to rescue Winthrop, who was undoubtedly getting the worst of the argument, and quite simply accused Hutchinson of fomenting all discontent in the colony by deprecating the ministers as under a covenant of works. It was stated that she had aired these unacceptable views at the conference held at Cotton’s house the previous December [1637].

This is factual writing about a historical event—a trial—in which the facts of the case were of the greatest importance. Fiction was not the medium here, nor was it looked for during this seminal trial. The author’s emotions, and her “experiences in high school,” were distinctly of secondary—if any—importance in her account of these events in American religious and legal history.

Some readers of this article may assume that writing with content is common in our schools, but a study done for The Concord Review by the Roper Organization found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper (8,000 words shorter than Jessica Leight’s paper) and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. There are many reasons, of course. While 95% reported that they believed research papers were important or very important, most do not have time to assign and grade them.

So it appears that a large fraction of our high school students now enter college having written only a five-paragraph essay, and perhaps one with made-up facts and their emotions about this and that for content. No wonder so many are in remedial courses and so many drop out.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at Northeastern University and author of Losing Our Language gave an example of a Boston high school student unready for college work, in her  report on Social Studies standards in the U.S. for the Fordham Foundation:

An overabundance of personal writing may also reduce students’ experience with informational writing and the modes of reasoning and organization it calls forth. This possibility is unwittingly suggested by the writer of a Boston Globe article on the reflections of a recent graduate of a Boston high school, described as a top student and the winner of several writing awards. Carol Figueroa was stunned by the writing demanded of her at a Boston-area college during her freshman year. The reporter noted that although Figueroa believed she had ‘received plenty of support and encouragement’ from her teachers and that she is now a ‘self-confident leader because of that,’ she now wishes she had gone to a high school with ‘more challenging school work.’ She had discovered that ‘moral support is different from academic rigor.’ Yet the reporter approvingly quoted an English teacher at another Boston high school who had had her students ‘write a short story about their lives’ because, in the teacher’s words, it allowed them to show ‘a high level of writing ability’ and to realize that ‘their own experience is valid and useful.’ This teacher is also quoted as believing that this assignment reflected her ‘high expectations’ for her students. It apparently did not occur to the reporter that this kind of writing assignment today, especially for high school students from minority groups, is more likely to reflect a concern for their self-esteem rather than a desire to challenge them intellectually. A regular flow of such writing assignments may be part of the reason that Hispanic students like Carol Figueroa are not prepared for college-level writing.

The National Governors Association has recently taken an interest in the high schools, and they were surprised when they asked a large sample of recent high school graduates about their experiences, and the majority said they wished they had been given more challenging work in school. They said they would gladly have done more school work if they had been asked to.

The Indiana Survey of High School Student Engagement, in a study of 80,000 students, found last year that 55% said they did less than three hours of homework each week and most still got As and Bs.

While I have not found the grant to allow me to commission a study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in our high schools, I remain of the opinion that as long as the English Departments determine the reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction and the writing personal, ‘creative’ or the five-paragraph essay.

Of course the assignment of serious nonfiction books and research papers is time-consuming, and public schools where teachers are given 150 or more students are not given any extra days to review such reading or to supervise and evaluate such papers, but there are other reasons for the evident retreat into frivolity and fiction.

Heather Mac Donald describes the teaching philosophy of Teacher’s College as “Anything But Knowledge,” and this philosophy is upheld by confining student writing to their own immediate experience, mostly of themselves. Even The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates young student essays on Courage, publishes the short pieces of students who write, not about Anne Hutchinson, or Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Horatius at the Bridge, or even one of our own Medal of Honor winners, but instead about their own courage in some one of their personal life situations. So Solipsism is the order of the day. Writing about oneself of course can be the work of genius as Marcel Proust has demonstrated so well, but when our students are limited to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school, there are serious consequences, which I would argue show up not only in studies showing the aliteracy of too many of them, but also in college remedial classes and college dropout rates.

    Stephen Colbert, I understand, has introduced the idea of “Truthiness” into our language. This is meant to indicate speech, and probably writing, which although false or comical, is given the appearance of accuracy and seriousness. In college, I was taught that it is one of the tasks of thought to help us distinguish appearance from reality, but the goal of “truthiness” is to blur that distinction, not to clarify it. On fake news programs, such as “The Daily Show” this practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, and elsewhere it seems, it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing of “nonfiction.” Postmodernists and deconstructionists at the university level have long been claiming that there is no such thing as truth, but here we have high school students being told, on a state assessment, that when writing nonfiction, it is OK just to make things up, for instance to invent an expert, and then “quote” him in support of an argument they are making.

    I believe that our high school students who write “truthy” fictitious nonfiction about themselves are being led to believe that they don’t need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. The personal writing that they do is not held to much of a standard, so too many graduate from school having had little or no experience in acquiring knowledge and organizing and presenting it in an academic paper. If colleges continued this focus on the student herself, and many college expository writing programs do, including some of the ones at Harvard, then this might not be as much of a problem. But college students are still expected to read nonfiction books of which their own personal life is not the subject, and they have to write research papers on what they have learned and thought about besides themselves. And many too many are not being prepared to do that, and this is one contributing factor in college dropout rates. What a terrible waste of hopes and opportunity!



Achieve (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work? PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. Available:

The Concord Review, (2002). History research paper study (conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis). Available:

Indiana University. (2004) High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: [Martha McCarthy]

Mathews, J. (2004, August 1). Computers weighing in on the elements of essay; Programs critique structure not ideas. The Washington Post

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing Highlights 2002.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected ‘R’; The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work...or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders.

Sacchetti, M. (2005, June 26) Colleges question MCAS success; many in state schools still need remedial help. The Boston Globe.

Shaw, L. (2006, March 17). WASL writing: Make it up as they go along. The Seattle Times, p. B1.

Stotsky, S (1999). Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: The Free Press, pp. 269-271

Winerip, M. (2005, May 4). SAT Essay rewards length and ignores errors. The New York Times.


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The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board [1998]
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