The Writing Center at the University of Washington Tacoma recently issued a seemingly shocking statement: “There is no inherent standard of English.” The statement is printed on a large, permanent banner and hangs in the UWT Teaching and Learning Center.
In the world of Breitbart News, that statement was like one piece of juicy, red meat, and the editors didn’t hesitate throwing it out to their politically-correct-hating readers.
The Breitbarters weren’t looking to parse any nuance out of the UWT statement; they just enjoyed scoffing at the idea that the liberal elites were at it again, tossing standards out the window and replacing them with an anything-goes-trophy-for-everyone bullhonkey, and as one commenter stated, “at taxpayers expense!”
If they bother to take a minute, instead of seeing this statement as another chance to pounce on uppity thinkers living in liberal Pacific Northwest ivory towers, and if they look at the words “inherent standard,” for instance, they might read the UW statement for what it is: a clear message to students that it’s acceptable to challenge conventional word choices and that one way of communicating isn’t necessarily superior over another.
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Institutions of education should respect every person who enters the classroom. This means if a person grew up with a parent, grandparent or a friend group whose syntax didn’t quite match the criteria outlined by William Strunk and E.B. White’s “Elements of Style”, the school will not pressure them, or shame them, or reduce them by telling them their use of language is somehow wrong or less-than.
This broader definition of good writing is troubling to some traditionalists who prefer language that is scrubbed of regional, ethnic or socioeconomic characteristics; it moves them away from the safe and familiar and into the uncomfortable realm of ambiguity. How can there be more than one right way to speak? To write? To live?
This does not mean UWT students will not learn grammar or mechanics in English classes. It does not mean they won’t have to write research papers with strong thesis statements or demonstrate proper use of citations; to not teach these things would be a great disservice. It’s more important than ever to teach today’s social media generation the depth, nuance and context that can’t be captured in a 142-character tweet.
But for far too long, institutions have been snobbish about the written word — and yes, there are undeniable traces of racism and classism in that conceit. What is wrong with acknowledging that? When did it become un-American to critique something, to call something what it is?
Ironically, many of the same alt-right conservatives now chafing at the erosion of traditional language gave up their King James Bibles for an easier translation years ago. Language is ever-evolving, which is the point UWT is trying to make.
The Writing Center at UWT has given students permission to let go of the notion that good writing is only about rigid grammar rules and proper punctuation; instead, it puts the initial emphasis on examining a topic from different perspectives and then organizing, editing and revising it down to the clearest, most authentic communication possible.
Ideas are at their best when they are lively, engaged and attentive to details. When a teacher comes at a student’s paper with a big red Sharpie looking only for misdeeds like dangling participles or split infinitives, it can quickly shut learning down.
Stifling and shaming students is not the point of education. The ultimate point is to prepare them for employment and get them to contemplate the little and big questions with discipline, curiosity and acute observation — something the people at Breitbart have yet to learn.