With clues strewn like leaves on autumn's forest bed, everyone has a prime suspect on who's murdering English. A few months ago, it was Alexander Haig, a man who grabs language by tongs and holds it arm's-distance from clarity. Yogi Berra is a perennial suspect. But like Casey Stengel before him, he is too cheerful a metaphysician to let his syntactic lapses gloom our day.
Of all people, now it's English teachers who stand accused of killing English. In College English, an academic journal, two Chicago researchers report a six-year experiment that found some 80 high school and college teachers were suckers for murky prose.
The teachers were asked to grade student essays that were identical except for language style. They rewarded verbosity, not exactness. Higher grades went to papers laced with complex sentences and prolix language. These papers, the teachers said, were "better organized, more mature and better supported."
A number of newspaper people--a group that a critic of impartial mind might place on the Who's Killing English suspect list--have pounced like overweight cats on the cornered teachers.
A Chicago Tribune writer calls on them to "repent." A Boston Globe editorialist, sighing that "English teachers don't practice what they preach," preaches like a Calvinist that predestination is involved: "Ours is a culture that is drawn to the overstated, the pretentious, the self-important. . . . Why should English teachers--or students, for that matter--be any different?"
On most occasions like this, I would join my colleagues. I would be Calvinistic, too, being a former editorial writer.
But I can't bring myself to do it. I know too many English teachers of hard-working natures and rare exuberance. I have been to too many classrooms helping English teachers get across the old point that "writing is rewriting what you've aready rewritten."
Instead of blaming English teachers with easy opinions, I would rather praise them with what are possibly informed judgments. My latest information comes from a meeting I had with a group of teachers at a writing workshop at George Mason University.
As individuals, each had the usual laments: the struggle of trying to teach students who don't know the rules of grammar, or students who do know but can't write by ear, or students who won't accept Paul Engle's idea that "a work of art is first of all work."
Those tensions aside, this group of about 100 teachers reflected one of education's most promising trends: teachers who can write are teaching teachers who would like to write, with both groups passing it on to their students.
Movement is occurring on two fronts. Since the mid-1970s, several thousand high school and college teachers have gone to about a hundred campuses for composition courses modeled after the Bay Area Writing Project. This is the program, begun in 1974 at the University of California at Berkeley, that has spread around the country with the help of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The other movement involves writing- across-the-curriculum programs. This means that teachers of mathematics or the sciences or history also teach their students the art of writing. About 200 colleges have such programs, all developed in the last five years.
From the evidence, English teachers, and other teachers as well, are doing more than we realize to cultivate in the young a love for the language and a respect for articulacy. They could do more, of course. But so could we: pay teachers the higher salaries they deserve, work at home with our own children to nurture their writing skills, and give the English teachers more encouragement and less carping.