I just finished reading Stanley Fish's most recent blog post, "What Should Colleges Teach?" and am pondering his response; I find that, while I have some areas of convergence, I disagree with much of what he says.
Yes, I agree that the level of writing skills in the average college freshman or sophomore sometimes seems to be at best, abysmal, and at worst, incomprehensible. I cannot tell you the number of papers through which I have muddled in which mangled syntax, assumed predicates, dangling participles, or simply bad grammar (not to mention anything in LOLCat) is the order of the day.
But I think Fish is missing something core here.
Simply look at the Condition of Education - Special Analysis 2009 from the IES and you can see how woefully we are falling behind as a nation in all areas of education... not just history. But the purpose of a liberal arts education - a fully-rounded education in the humanities - is to hone these basic skills in every classroom. YES, the writing courses should absolutely be working on the fundamentals. But, I know in my classroom, every writing assignment brings with it additional opportunity for me to interact with each student at his or her level on that student's own skillset. We hone. We shape. We struggle. And we learn together not just about history, but how to put it into context, how to bring it out of our own minds and bring it forth into the world as fully formed ideas and actions which are not only part of the past, but impacts on the future.
Now, this brings up another issue with which I take some umbrage with Mr. Fish; incoming students cannot and do not, as a general rule, have the abilities to comp out of basic American History survey classes. Especially now, with No Child Left Behind and its reprehensible lack of mandated history education. And then there is the State of Tennessee and its woefully short-sighted passage of Public Chapter 204 sponsored by State Representative Joe Pitts and State Senator Tim Barnes, which lowered the requirements for history education for Tennessee Board of Regents students - and only for history education. We are doing our younger generations such disservices by saying "oh, only a class or two, here or there... and only one on the French Revolution, or the American Civil War is needed." No!! How is that going to help a student become a better civic leader? A person with a better understanding of her or his responsibilities to the past the present AND the future? If the only requirement to understanding our country's past in its totality is something learned with a C average as a freshman in high school, well... where is that going to leave us? I am perpetually stunned when I encounter students who are flummoxed by the idea that yes, there really were separate black and white entrances to restaurants at one point in our nation's blighted past. We *need* these courses if only to help witness to our own past and to see our way clear to a new and brighter future.
So Mr. Fish, while I think you are correct in your assessment that students are woefully unprepared in many ways for college - oh, so unprepared - I think you are doing them a disservice by your solution. We need more rigors in humanities education, not less (and yes I *do* think there is something vivid and alive to be said for the comprehensive literature course, especially in a multicultural world! Milton? Not just!).
We as educators must simply be prepared - and supported - to meet that challenge.