Reading the bad writing of college students, a teacher tends to suppose, extenuatingly, that the badness reflects the artificiality and unfamiliarity of the task. In writing about, say, a cultural or historical subject, a philosophical debate, or an aesthetic experience, you remind yourself, of course it doesn’t come naturally to most eighteen-year-olds to reason carefully from sound principles or in well-defined terms. After all, this is the whole point of education: to acculturate us into a centuries-long set of debates and discussions, so that we can articulate our own ideas in that context; so that we can think through our positions on important issues rather than stumbling into pitfalls that were mapped out centuries ago. And of course the constrained, artificial set tasks and prescribed forms in college writing assignments are an odd, awkward set of hobbles for anyone; some writers are better at camouflaging or working around this awkwardness than others, but that doesn’t make the stiltedness of a five-page assigned essay the fault of those who can’t hide it. It’d take a genius to write something genuinely good in two weeks in response to the average college essay prompt.

But then when reading the Internet, one sees the same writing, with the same failings — the same poverty of reason and surplus of bluster and fiat, the same unexamined conventionality in the same received phrasing, the same blithe ignorance of the contradictions of one’s position, the same historical ignorance and the same Whiggish presentism — happily produced, and indeed celebrated, by well-educated grown adults, well-published columnists, well-paid “thought leaders” and public speakers. And given how naturally the clichés come to them, how readily they tweet and how self-satisfiedly they speak and how unobstructedly they publish the very same stuff, the awkward strictures of some essay-writing prompt don’t seem to have much to do with it. Perhaps first-year comp is the condition of humanity.

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