Language, Power, and the Politics of Freshman English

Written by Amy Goodloe
Copyright © 1994. All Rights Reserved
do not reproduce without permission

At most universities, every student who enters as a Freshman has to take some form of English; the logic behind this is rarely explained to students, so they have good reason to complain about the relevance of this requirement. Students’ complaints tend to become even louder when they realize that they will be required to write for Freshman English in a way that is significantly different from all of their other courses, and they are rarely given a logical explanation for this either. I have therefore made it my practice as an instructor of English to bring these issues to the forefront in the Freshman English classroom — to make them, in fact, part of our larger inquiry into the relationships between language, power, culture, and knowledge.

I begin early in the semester by having students examine the implications of the traditionally accepted format for writing in an academic setting. This format is typically referred to as the “five paragraph theme,” and its primary characteristics are: rigid organization, usually in the form of an introduction, three or four body paragraphs, and a conclusion; a thesis sentence which breaks a topic into three or four “units;” vague and abstract language which imitates much of academic discourse; frequent use of the passive voice (presumably to avoid personalization); and a complete absence of opinion or personal voice. This format may seem fairly innocuous — after all, what could be wrong with organizing a paper around a thesis sentence? — but underlying this format is a rather subtle political agenda that surprises most students when they become aware of it.

The five paragraph theme format, which I will henceforth refer to as the “formula,” is popular with instructors for a number of reasons, the foremost of which is that it simplifies the grading process. If the “formula” is the standard, then it is fairly easy to measure student essays against the formula, and to penalize those essays that fail to conform. In other words, if an essay doesn’t have a recognizable, one-paragraph introduction (ending with thesis statement), three or four supporting body paragraphs, and a tidy one-paragraph conclusion, then it is faulted as having poor organization, when in fact the student may have followed a more sophisticated organizational strategy according to the choice of content. Using the formula, then, forces students to emphasize form rather than content — to, in fact, tailor their content to fit the preconceived format, which significantly reduces the possibility for original and creative thinking.

Another aspect of this formula is its insistence on a certain kind of language, which also limits creative and original thinking. So-called “academic language” is not only vague and abstract, it is frequently marked by use of the passive voice, which is a means for the writer to defer responsibility for his or her claims. The passive voice often gives the illusion of objectivity, which is highly prized in academic writing, since the reader is not made aware that there is in fact an agent to the action — an agent who most likely occupies a very specific subject position. For example, the phrase “the reader is not made aware,” which I deliberately wrote in the passive, obscures the fact a person is responsible for “making” readers unaware — for, in fact, depriving readers of information in order to remain “objective.” The rationale behind this is that subjectivity somehow distorts the quest for “truth” because it becomes too “personal,” but it usually does not take students long to recognize that it is claims to objectivity which actually have the power to distort, since it is these claims which fail to take into account the ultimately subjective nature of all human knowledge.

Teachers of subjects other than English often uncritically accept and use the formula not only because it makes grading easier, but also because it reflects the way they were trained to write, and the way academics in their fields write for publication (1). In some disciplines the quest for objectivity remains a priority, even at the expense of the original insight which can come when one examines the assumptions behind one’s own subject position. Challenging assumptions and critiquing systems of thought requires critical thinking, which in turn leads to a very different process of composition than the traditional “formula,” but this kind of thinking/writing is not encouraged in many disciplines because of its inherently counter-dominant nature. In other words, the academic discipline of Chemistry, for example, has a lot to gain from preserving the status quo, in terms of who defines knowledge in this field, how knowledge is used, and what constitutes “good” or useful knowledge. If students and instructors in this field begin to raise questions about this process, the establishment itself is threatened — and so critical thinking is not encouraged, unless it serves a very specific research-related function.

Perhaps the strongest critique, then, of the traditional formula for writing papers is that it acts as a sort of “thought control” by forcing students to adhere to the rules of the dominant culture — so that original, critical thinking is discouraged and imitation of the “authority” is rewarded. Students who presume to question authority, to critique the epistemology of their fields, are rarely rewarded, especially at the undergraduate level — although this is becoming less true in humanities courses. But even more important, few students are even being equipped to make such challenges, and this is where the new theories of composition come in. Even though most students who come through our Freshman English courses may never be allowed to use the skills of deconstruction we provide them with in other classes, I personally feel that the purpose of education is better served when students possess these skills — and I have found that students usually agree with me once we have explored this issue in class.

Newer theories of composition, the ones which are currently influencing most Freshman writing programs, emphasize the inherent connection between thinking and writing, so that Freshman English is not just a course in how to use “correct” grammar, but an exploration of relationship between language, ideas, and culture. Critical theory in particular operates under the assumption that the “formula” method of composition is a tool of the dominant culture, and that students ought to be equipped to deconstruct the dominant power relations if this society is ever to achieve the level of progress that is the supposed goal of education. Not only is the formula a “tool,” however, but it also serves to replicate the status quo, basically by producing thinkers who think alike — and so any challenge to this method of writing and thinking is understandably met with quite a bit of resistance, considering what is at stake. Students often adopt this position of resistance, especially those who have been particularly adept at mastering the formula, but after several class discussions and relevant writing assignments, they usually begin to recognize the ways in which their thinking has been manipulated by the dominant culture. At this point of realization students are typically ready to give a new method of composition a try, although some will continue to complain that they will never be able to use these skills in the “real world,” and that what they really need to succeed is “good” grammar.

The new method I’m referring to does not, however, require teachers to abandon all attention to grammar, mechanics, organization and the other traditional “elements” or writing, but rather to redefine their importance. If the aim of Freshman English is to equip students with the ability to get some distance from the culture that shapes them, so that they can critique and analyze it, then this will necessarily require that they learn to use language in the most powerful, precise, and logical way possible. Grammar, then, should be seen as a means towards this end, as a tool enabling writers to think and express ideas with maximum clarity, rather than as the “limiting force” that most students perceive it to be. The same is true of principles of organization: they should exist to serve the purpose of enabling the clear and thorough expression of ideas. If a particular pattern for organization doesn’t fulfill this purpose, the writer should choose or develop another, rather than restricting or limiting the thought process to a narrowly conceived, pre-determined pattern such as the five paragraph theme.

I am well aware that the goals of the composition course I have outlined here may be viewed by some as overly-ambitious, especially considering the basic English language problems facing many students at a multicultural, urban university. But to deny any student the opportunity to gain critical thinking skills, and especially students who are not white, middle class, native speakers, is to perpetuate the very situation that critical thinking seeks to challenge and undermine: that of social inequalities on the basis of class, race, and gender. While it is clear that these students may need training in the basic mechanics of the English language, and may in fact need to begin by using the basic essay format of a five paragraph theme, it would be a disservice to them and to society for the training to end here. Even though some other disciplines may begin to offer such training, it falls most logically within the scope of Freshman English, not only because of the direct relationship between critical analysis and the composing process, but also because this is the only course that every entering student is required to take. The skills needed to critique and analyze power-relations, to challenge authority and question the agenda of any hegemonic ideology, ought to be taught to all students if education is to be the “great equalizer” it claims to be; only then will students truly be equipped to face, and to change, the “real world.”

(1) The formula seems to have its origins in the original conception of education as a means of replicating the status quo. If public schooling was intended to produce “model citizens,” then this goal was best served by training students to master the dominant discourse; clearly, learning to deconstruct the dominant discourse would be counter-productive to this goal. (back up)