Indoctrination In Writing Class

As Charlotte Allen points out here, required summer reading for college freshmen is often highly politicized. That goes double for freshmen introductory writing courses and textbooks. Teaching composition to new students ought to be an ideology-free effort, but for many years on many campuses it hasn’t been.

For example, take Ways of Reading: an Anthology for Writers, compiled by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky of the University of Pittsburgh and first published in 1987. In its various editions (the eighth appeared this year), Ways has served up a steady diet of post-modernism, critical theory, post-colonial studies, identity politics, post structuralism, Marxism, hard-line feminism and other isms of the academic left. Featured authors have included Edward Said, Paolo Freire, Susan Bordo, Michel Foucault, Adrienne Rich, Stanley Fish and Patricia Williams.

Here and there, a mainstream writer appears: Virginia Woolf , Joyce Carol Oates and James Baldwin (all three gone in the current edition) as well as Walker Percy, who has survived several purges. But the ideological component is overwhelming, and meant to be. Ways of Reading is an immersion course for unsuspecting freshmen into the discourse and values of the academic far left. The basic message is: this is the way things are on this campus, so get used to it.

The essays are long and run from dense to nearly impenetrable. How freshmen, many of whom write poorly and need remedial help, are supposed to cope with this difficult, in-your-face anthology is obscure.

Assessments of the book are hard to find. In 2004, a freshman wrote to Amazon, “The book is basically a leftist handbook meant to tell the ‘proper opinion’ on every issue.” Presumably many professors adopt the book because it reflects their values and legitimates “transformative teaching” (indoctrination). Tom Kerr, writing in 2001 as an assistant professor at Ithaca College, saw the text “as a way not only of reading but also of proselytizing and subverting the mind-numbing, consumer/capitalist/fascist/sexist/racist/classist ideologies that surrounded us in the form of American mythologies and mass culture.” Kerr approvingly called the book “a kind of postmodern tough love,” “a cultural war machine” and “a multicultural boot camp.” (Not much emphasis here on teaching freshmen how to write.) Still , he thought the book’s negatives outweighed the positives. “For many in its highly diverse audience,” he wrote Ways of Reading is apt to yield more dutiful conformity than critical creativity and, as likely as not, leave the audience dumbfounded.” More importantly, imposing a one-sided ideology on a writing class is remarkably contemptuous of the students involved. Call it intellectual waterboarding.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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