Jan 25, 2011

Three Cheers for Reading & Writing

I'm half-watching the State of the Union...as in I watched it for-real for about 10 minutes and then had to make a phone call and just now took it back off mute. But there was a part in the 10 minutes that I watched that is inspiring a rant.

Education. It's good. I love it. Kids, grown-ups, all people should be educated in lots of things. President Obama thinks kids need further education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and from my time at Girl Scouts, I can tell you that lots of reputable, committed educational organizations and funders think STEM education is tops. And I think STEM is a fine area in which to be educating kids.

From SalemState.edu
But what about basic literacy? We can educate kids in STEM 'til the cows come home but if we don't teach them to read or write, then none of it matters. If you are a rocket scientist - and that is damn cool - you must be able to write down, coherently, the genius behind your ideas. If you want funding for your scientific breakthrough, you have to be able to explain it to funders. And even more basic, if you want to become a rocket scientist or doctor or software engineer, you have to be able to read, comprehend and think critically about the information.

I realize that as a country, we are overwhelmingly literate. Just literate, however, is not good enough. We've all read emails by co-workers that look like multiple paragraphs but are really one long sentence. It's embarassing yet those co-workers count as literate. I've read writing samples from hopeful college interns, and from prestigious schools at that, and the grammar is horrendous. And they are in college! What about all the students who don't make it past high school or even those who don't make it through high school? If our college students can't handle commas and adjectives, how can we expect those with less education to master them?

For my liberal arts degree, I was required to take 2 math courses and 2 science courses yet was only required to take one class in writing. I had less than zero interest in the math or science courses but I had to take them in the name of well-rounded liberal arts education. So why was only one writing class required? In the name of a solid well-rounded liberal arts education, we should certainly expect more writing abilities from our graduates, even those with no interest in it. This is especially true if we are then going to grade them on how they write essays for history, science, economics, etc. Aren't students being put at a disadvantage in nearly all of their courses if they aren't given thorough, structured instruction in writing? And of course that disadvantage extends beyond the classroom to cover letters, business proposals and more.

I say, yes, fund STEM education. But also fund - and emphasize - reading and writing. Remember that though maybe not as sexy, those are the basic skills that students need to excel in ANY field. Without basic communication skills, expertise in other areas is handicapped.

On the same note, and this is much less objective, there's a lot of research out there about women pursuing more degrees and professions in the arts as opposed to the sciences. What's wrong with that? Newsflash, it's never going to be exactly 50/50 along gender lines in any field. It's always going to be at least a little unbalanced. Why is it so bad if a few fields are unbalanced toward women? Communications, marketing, teaching, nursing, social work - these fields are not lesser because they are dominated by women but when girls and women are constantly pushed into other areas instead of these, it kind of suggests that maybe these fields aren't good enough. That really bugs me. (And here comes my inner feminist) Our grandmas, mothers and aunts fought for us to have a choice...so let me have a fair choice in my career (you know, the one I choose to have in the first place) and treat art and language with the respect it deserves from centuries of existence.

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