Writing and Reading are Not Skills, or, What Do Stanley Aronowitz and E.D. Hirsch Have in Common?

Writing and Reading are Not Skills, or, What Do Stanley Aronowitz and E.D. Hirsch Have in Common?

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.


Although usually considered to be on opposite sides of the educational fence, Stanley Aronowitz and E.D. Hirsch have more in common than you might think. As Hirsch himself maintains, his ideas cannot be aligned with those of conservatives like Allan Bloom, and he shares Aronowitz’s commitment to justice in education for the underserved. Where their ideas intersect most clearly is in their belief that literacy is not a skill. In a New York Times op-ed piece earlier this year, “Reading Test Dummies” (March 23, 2009), Hirsch criticizes the educational and testing establishment for its treatment of reading simply as a skill to be learned through drills:

Teachers can’t prepare for the content of the tests [whose topics are arbitrary] and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea.” Yet despite this intensive test preparation, reading scores have paradoxically stagnated or declined in the later grades.

This is because the schools have imagined that reading is merely a “skill” that can be transferred from one passage to another, and that reading scores can be raised by having young students endlessly practice strategies on trivial stories.

Hirsch argues that assessment-driven reading tests are not “knowledge-neutral” and here he shares the view of many progressive educationists who maintain that tests such the SAT are culturally biased. His answer is to base fill-in-the bubble reading tests on what gets taught in the curriculum so that the tests will have “consequential validity.” The famous study he cites is instructive:

Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups — strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests. The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball. Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge.

The experiment confirmed what language researchers have long maintained: the key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject. For a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge.

This basic principle grounds Hirsch’s entire theory of cultural literacy. And while we can debate who’s culture will ultimately get normalized in a curriculum, the basic notion of reading not as a static skill but as a context-bound ability is surely important.

In a not dissimilar vein, Aronowitz has questioned the accuracy of common references to writing as a skill by showing that it involves far more than repetitive, habitual actions:

Writing, too, would be a skill if its mastery were confined to habituating the student to such mechanical functions [as those used in changing a light bulb or using a computer]. To be sure, writing incorporates skills . . . But since semantic issues always intrude in writing, making meaning is not a skill but both an art and a form of critical learning. (‘Writing is Not a Skill” in Essays on Writing, Ed. Lizbeth Bryant and Heather Clark. Longman, 2008. 40)

More specifically, Aronowitz insists that learning techniques and rules is never the same as learning to write, since writing involves the act of thinking, not merely its expression: “the idea that knowledge acquisition is independent of its expression in untenable” (41). Such a view informs many grading policies that evaluate “content” and “writing” separately. If we want to grade mechanics and usage, it’s more accurate to call these aspects of writing “mechanics and usage” but not the whole of “writing.”

Consider the following passage by a TCNJ student:

In online social networks, we never know who is looking at our information and/or if that person is even telling you the truth about themselves. Therefore, the use of online social networking causes people to fake their identity, causing others to believe them and negatively affecting those they interact with because of their false identification.

There are unnecessary shifts in pronoun usage, and some may not care for the structure of the second sentence, but technically, it is “grammatically” correct. Far more problematic about the “writing” in this passage is the faulty thinking. This student has misunderstood—and incorrectly expressed—causation. Some students who can ace a multiple choice test in your course may nevertheless “write poorly” on the same concepts. Writing involves higher order thinking such as the application of ideas to new situations (not to mention knowledge of a variety of disciplinary conventions). Rather than see the poor writing as an indicator that the student doesn’t have good writing skills, we might instead conclude that the student has not fully mastered the course concepts. The implications for our teaching become quite different.

I know that many will still claim that students should already have acquired the skill of writing (or reading) before they enter our classes. But we must understand these skills as contextual; rather than a skill, literacy is better understood as a resource used in many different contexts in one’s life, with varying degrees of effectiveness (see Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge University Press, 2001). All factors of a given writing situation affect a student’s ability to write clearly. Struggling to understand new material can result in repetition, vagueness, and even uncharacteristic errors in usage. Your impression from one student paper might lead you to conclude that a student is not a “good writer.” Likewise, a different paper might result in a more positive assessment of the student’s abilities.

A few years ago, this point was vividly illustrated when a faculty member teaching a First Seminar came into my office to recommend that one of his students be exempted from WRI 102. He assured me that she was “a very good writer” and didn’t think she needed the course. After checking her record, I saw that she’d taken the placement exam but not scored high enough to place out of the class; I explained that she would indeed need to take the course. A few weeks later, this same faculty member told me that after his student had written a thesis-driven paper, he realized she did need WRI 102. Up to that point, they had been doing reaction papers and journal entries, and in those genres, she had impressed him. Was this student a “good writer”? Such labels serve neither us nor students well.

If neither reading nor writing is a “skill,” what does this mean for our curricula and our teaching? Stay tuned for the next issue of the Bulletin.