A bold op-ed on the Harvard Business Review recently made the unsettling claim that, “Yes, College Essays Are Ruining Our Economy.” Even though I am somewhat uncomfortable with the sensationalist title, I can’t help but agree with the central spirit of the piece.
Ultimately, the problem is that we write too many words… As a teacher I’ve witnessed how we imply that an increase in word count equals an advancement in learning. In elementary school, we identify “key sentences” and write one- or two-page essays, which is wonderful, but then it all goes wrong. By junior high we’re on to 10-page papers, by high school we’re up to 25 pages, in college, the triumph is a 50-page thesis, and then the Ph.D. produces 100-plus pages to prove their smarts.
About two weeks ago, I went to the Stanford LDT Expo and was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of text in the room. Even though every graduate student was required to make a prototype education technology product, each of their presentation was accompanied by word count in the thousands scattered across poster boards, projected slides, pamphlets and handouts.
I was honestly a little bit shocked. Now, I understand that it is fully in line with the academic experience and goal to state your research/learning goals and explain your research— I understand that there is value in doing full literature reviews, using writing as a medium to explore critical thinking, and ultimately being able to communicate your point clearly to an audience… But who in the world reads these things except for other fellow academics? As I shifted my gaze across poster board after poster board crawling with Font-size 12 text, I felt the deep sense of dislocation of this world from the fast-talking business one who will barely forgive a paragraph on a powerpoint. And that is a shame, because there were valuable points to be made on the pedagogy and thinking that went behind these products which were inevitably lost simply because of too much text.
It got me to think about my and many of my peers’ predicament. Despite having received an enviable education, many of us feel that we have very few tangible skills beyond our writing and so-called “critical thinking.” This is not to belittle the value of such said critical thinking or writing’s inherent place in learning and making sense of the world, but at some point in the iterative process of being graded on your words, the implication emerged that it is somehow enough to be simply able to argue or refute a point. Writing about execution has replaced execution— and some seem to believe that truth can be created simply by articulating anything.
The irony of this post and blog is of course not lost on me next to this topic. But I would love to see more movement towards initiatives like the Maker Education Initiative, and away from a system where we are educated to push things around on paper, and to be good on paper above all else.
Incidentally, the above post is just over 500 words.