The Socrates Test: A Baseline for Writing Instruction

There is a phrase of Saul Bellow’s that has been on my mind recently. Describing his education in the Chicago public school system, Bellow remarked, “by the time you got out of high school, no one had to tell you who Socrates was.” (The phrase comes from the first volume of Zachary Leader’s venerable two-volume biography, The Life of Saul Bellow.) Bellow’s assessment of his schooling is cheekily succinct. He doesn’t claim he and his peers were widely read in classical Greek philosophy. He makes no mention of Plato’s dialogues, nor of Xenophon’s, nor of Aristophanes’s satirical portrait of the philosopher in The Clouds—nevertheless, a diploma-bearing Chicago kid could, in Bellow’s estimation, find himself in a conversation about Socrates and avoiding embarrassing himself. That’s not bad for a student body made up of “the children of bakers, peddlers, cutters, grocers, the sons of families on relief,” largely immigrants, like Bellow, who spoke other languages at home. (Fun fact: Saul Bellow, who is largely responsible for creating the dazzling, energetic voice that readers have come to expect from American fiction, was an illegal immigrant to the country he would spend his career mining for literary material.)

Bellow’s modest assessment of his public school education has me thinking about my own role as a sometime educator at a public university. What, I wonder, is the writing equivalent of not-having-to-be-told-who-Socrates-was?

At the public high school I attended, the Socrates Test—the one thing you had to leave school knowing—was the Five Paragraph Essay. You might remember the lifeless entity I’m referring to. Paragraph One is an introduction, which often begins with a pretentious, unverifiable claim (“Since the birth of civilization, man has debated…”) and ends with a mealy-mouthed thesis (“Though in many ways Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter conforms to his definition of romance, in other ways it doesn’t”). Paragraphs Two and Three support the thesis. Paragraph Four gracelessly contradicts the thesis. Paragraph Five paraphrases Paragraph One. In North Jersey we called that good writing.

So the Five Paragraph essay won’t cut it. What, then, will constitute our Socrates Test? Perhaps each student should be made to understand a handful of unshakable Tenets of Good Writing. I remember these tenets from my school days as injunctions against a certain kind of “bad” writing rather than a description of what made “good” writing. Here are a few so-called rules, chosen at random, that I have heard over the years:

  1. Don’t begin a sentence with “I”
  2. Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or”)
  3. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  4. Write short, clear sentences
  5. Don’t begin your conclusion with “In conclusion”
  6. Do not use contractions!
  7. Don’t use exclamation points
  8. Spell out numbers under ten
  9. Avoid using adverbs
  10. Don’t use passive voice

…et cetera, et cetera.

When I began teaching writing within the CUNY system, I met incoming freshmen who had internalized all kinds of preposterous rules. I have difficulty recalling a single rule that made them better writers. Rather than model good writing, these inherited restrictions aim to quickly and cheaply eliminate bigger grammatical and stylistic problems that young writers face. For example, I suspect that rule two was designed to prevent students from writing in fragments (“Or maybe Thursday.”) or cluttering their sentences with needless words (“And while the authors of the Constitution intended…” is just as effective without “and”). At best, rules such as these mean well, but leave out details about what makes writing effective. At worst, these rules directly contradict good sense. Consider that farcical iteration of rule number three, attributed to Winston Churchill: “A sentence ending in a preposition is something up with which I will not put!” Other rules, such as four, six, and nine, merely the reflect the preferred style of a given writing primer or grammar book. This might do no harm, but it also does little good. In its own way, each so-called rule skirts the issue of what makes compelling, effective writing.

Another potential Socrates Test emphasizes grammar. Maybe good writing is grammatical writing. While it’s important that students learn how to write sentences that conform to the conventions of standard English—whatever that may be at the time—grammar is not a cure-all. After all, “This book stinks” is a perfectly grammatical sentence, but no teacher wants to see it in an essay. Additionally, penalizing undergraduates for their grammar errors does little to fix them—or so say the composition and rhetoric experts, whom I’m inclined to believe. Over the past few decades, writing instructors have come to regard grammar as a “lower-order concern,” the icing on a writing-cake. (Yum.) We need to teach our students to think about content before we saddle them with details about commas.

So what, finally, is my Socrates Test? I want my students to leave my classroom able to write a strong paragraph that makes a single claim and supports that claim with evidence, thoughtful reasoning, and logic. I’m not asking for the labors of Hercules. I only wish for my students to write a compelling and effective paragraph (and then another and another and another).

     My preferred instruction method is to have my students write as much as possible, in as many different modes as possible. I want them to be comfortable with their writing voices. Equally important is that I introduce them to good writing, and that we take time in class to discuss what makes a paragraph or sentence successful. You need not assign your students James Baldwin’s essays to do this. If you teach math, or chemistry, or computer science and are assigning writing in your course, you may bring in relevant newspaper or magazine articles covering current issues in your topic. Use this as an opportunity to connect your course’s subject matter to real-world events and, in the process, assess your students’ abilities to read the written word. Assign an article from the Times or the Economist, for example, and ask your students to locate the author’s thesis statement, their supporting evidence, and any counter-arguments they provide.

There is no simple solution to teaching writing, and under that weight my Socrates Test analogy begins to sweat and shake. Answering “Who is Socrates?” rests on internalizing facts; knowing how to compose a coherent, meaningful paragraph requires practice. Our job as instructors across the disciplines is to provide an environment in which our studies can practice writing with their coursework and master their coursework through writing.

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