Yesterday was Dr. Seuss’ 105th birthday. Of course, the all-time great children’s author of more than fifty books died in ’91 at the age of 87. But that certainly doesn’t mean that his legacy passed with him. His books have been entertaining and educating more than three generations of children around the world and especially in the US. You can learn as much about the art of writing from Dr. Seuss as much as children learn from reading his books. The sad fact is, writing and reading seem to be lost in the chasm of our economic, educational, and political debates these days.

In truth, writing has been deemphasized as a skill that should be highly regarded for more than half a century. When Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in ’58 in response to the former Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, it set the stage for the devolution of writing in American education, especially K-12. The act provided funds to public school so that they could beef up their curricula on science, mathematics, technical education, and to a lesser extent, foreign languages, area studies, and geography. Still, everyone who understood the context behind the passage of the bill — which would’ve been most of the country back then — knew that it was the physical sciences and math that would be the priority.

And it has been. To the point where there is more course time devoted to math than a half century ago, more time on basic science in elementary and middle school and math and science sequences in high school. There are a larger number of scholarships and awards dedicated to students who excel in these subjects and are thinking about a major in one of the STEM fields as they are called (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at the undergraduate level. Companies, even now, even in the midst of our steep recession, are snapping up the best and brightest in these majors, paying for graduates to go back to school to earn a graduate degree in these fields, and sponsoring fellowships and other awards for master’s and doctoral students. There is money to be had, jobs that need filling, technologies that need to be harnessed, and numbers that have to be crunched.

Writing and reading and the teaching of such, while obviously still important in the K-12 curriculum, is merely a means to an end. It’s not about using what you read to take an imagination-based journey to another world. Or teaching students how to use their imagination to write up their own journey, real and imagined. No, what it’s really about is learning how to read and write so that when it’s time to take the state standardized test in third grade, sixth grade, eighth or tenth grade, the students meet or exceed the state average. Writing and reading are seen by many in education as sheer work, not as tools that help develop skills necessary for success in the world of work — including the STEM fields — and in life.

Schools have it rough, given the lack of sufficient funds to fulfill all of their various roles these days. My schooling in the ’70s seems like a tropical paradise when I compare it to what some of my students have seen in the past ten or twenty years. I only went to school for half-days in kindergarten, didn’t do any homework until first grade, and math only became moderately difficult when I saw the multiplication table for the first time in third grade.

That left a lot of time for teachers to fill us in on the art of reading and writing. I didn’t come from an upper middle class family, so my mother and father didn’t read to me before I started school. But once my older brother Darren had taught me how to read, I became excited about books. Not all books, mind you. Just books like Curious George in first grade, which, thankfully, I grew out of by the end of first grade. Books by Dr. Seuss, like The Cat in The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Socks, and so many others. Dr. Seuss was most of second grade for me.

The one children’s author I fell in love with was Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip that ran in newspapers around the world for nearly fifty years. His books. Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder and Snoopy. Those were the days for me. From third to sixth grade, that was my comic relief, my light reading, a place where my imagination would run wild. I could understand the complicated world in which we lived through Schulz. The need for peace and love, the lack of fair play (see Lucy, Charlie Brown and that darn football), and a sense of balance, spiritual and physical. Those were all there in his books for me to glean. I literally created a Peanuts style world in our bedroom at 616 with Matchbox cars and any trash I could find. Municipal politics, geopolitical situations, ideological debates, all channeled through the world of Charlie Brown.

From there, I guess, writing was only a matter of time. The key to any good writing, besides the ability to think critically, is to read other good writers, to see their thoughts behind their thoughts. To understand that even for a real life story, that imagination and perspective are important. I got a lot out of Seuss and Schulz around imagination. And an active imagination is one that can also interpret, provide perspective, and think critically. All kind of important skills in the real world, whether one is an astrophysicist, mathematician, or a writer.
Having spent the better part of twenty years reading other peoples’ writing — particularly the writings of about 1,500 students since ’91 — it’s obvious to me that writing and reading aren’t taught the way it was taught to me. I still had teachers who loved the art of writing, teachers who weren’t teaching kindergarten or first grade, that is. Most of my students are functional writers — they only write because they are forced to, which shows in how they for my courses. They write as if they’re in the midst of a conversation with a friend at McDonald’s or outside a nightclub (some of my students are older than me). They don’t write with critical thinking, interpretation, or perspective in mind. They write to fulfill a class requirement, and don’t think about the substance of what they’re writing as a result. Some students have told me straight up that they hate writing.
When I first complained about this as a second-year grad student at Pitt, I had one professor pull out a paper from a student whom was in a writing seminar with him in ’79. The paper was as error filled and hard to read as anything I grade these days. His point was that students from any period in the past tend to write in ways that are contrary to the ability to communicate ideas clearly. I’d argue, though, that given the research I’ve done over the years, that it has gotten worse since 1958.
Teachers aren’t all to blame for this, and neither are my students. Our culture values what it values, and it values writing far less than it does an engineer or nuclear physicist. But I think that we’d all be better at our jobs and better off if we did value writing, and reading that would help us as writers and thinkers. It’s a shame, but I remain hopeful, at least for my son and his generation. I hope that they find their way to seeing writing as grist for their hearts and not just a bagel to jam down their throats while rushing through their lives.