What employers need so colleges don’t teach well

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A few years ago, while leading the student program at Baylor University in Washington, DC, I asked a US senator, “What do you need for an intern? He replied, “Three things: write, write, write. “

He needed interns who could draft a paper or attend a meeting and write a brief, clear and intelligent summary. It’s not that easy to find. Writing is consistently cited by employers as one of the skills candidates most lack. Law schools devote great attention to the art of legal drafting. And it’s increasingly clear that writing skills are invaluable for STEM students as well.

High schools and colleges have generally not been very good at producing students with strong writing skills. Teaching writing is difficult and time consuming. For most of us, students or not, good writing is rewriting.

For students, this means at a minimum not to wait to start a job just before the scheduled date. Additionally, it requires students to become their own best critics. Students should be able to read what they have written and learn to distinguish what is clear and convincing from what is not clear and inconsistent. The realization that what I have worked on is poor or worse is a humbling and often painful experience. It is also the one that is deeply beneficial to the person who comes to this realization. And given the amount of mediocre thoughts and sloppy expression that we see all around us these days, we can be sure that the need for self-correction isn’t limited to students.

This is not a new phenomenon, it is just a phenomenon that we might remember lately.

Writing 75 years ago, in an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted that “Most people who care about the issue admit that the English language is bad. “

The problem, he concludes, is both political and economic. For a writer who has focused much of his thinking on “thought crime” and “newspeak”, the connection between good writing and clear, solid thinking is something we need to be aware of.

Now we are starting another academic year, and we would do well to reflect on the importance of written communication skills, both as part of career preparation and as a tool to protect our souls from techniques. manipulative advertising and political control that roam. on our screens with worrying regularity.

Fortunately, “Politics and the English Language” remains influential 75 years after its initial release. It is always recommended to read for writers at The observer, a British newspaper for which Orwell wrote. Beyond practical suggestions on how to improve one’s writing, the essay invites us to seriously weigh the costs of not appropriating our own use of the language. The loss is not only a limitation of our prospects for internships or jobs.

For Orwell, writing is the activity in which we are most likely to reflect on our use of language, much more than when we are simply speaking. It is also the activity in which we can discern the connection between language and thought. Our language, he writes, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but neglect of our tongue makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Determining what we think and want to say and how to say it, as we put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, involves taking ownership of our thinking. We don’t need to make the effort, of course; we can, Orwell notes, just open our minds and let the “ready-made phrases pile up.” Clichés or “ready-made phrases” only seem obvious to us because we have never thought critically about what they really mean.

In a lesson that is explained in more detail in his famous novels, Animal house and 1984, Orwell insists that if we don’t consciously use language, language will use us. Others may take advantage of the neglect or deception of language to use it and us for their own ends. The ready-made phrases will “construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to some extent – and if necessary they will do the important service of partially hiding your very meaning from yourself.”

Learning to write well is learning to think well. And learning to think well is what we want our young people to do. This is what we all need to do. It’s an art. And this one with the deepest sort of value.

Thomas S. Hibbs is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University.


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