There is a new genre of teenage writing in town: Creative Nonfiction. It allows high school students (mostly girls) to complete writing assignments and participate in "essay contests" by writing about their hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), and parents, as well as more existential questions such as "How do I look?" and "What should I wear to school?"
This kind of writing is celebrated by Teen Voices, where teen girls can publish their thoughts about their hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), and parents, etc. and by contests such as the one sponsored by Imagine, the magazine of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
College admissions officers also ask applicants to write about themselves, rather than, for example, asking to see their best extended research paper from high school. The outcome is that many of our public high school graduates encounter college term paper assignments which ask them to learn and write about something other than themselves, and thanks to the kudzu of Creative Nonfiction, this they are unprepared to do.
How teen autobiography came to be a substitute for nonfiction reading and academic writing is a long story, but clearly many now feel that a pumped-up diary entry is worthy of prizes in high school "essay contests," and required in college application materials.
Of course teen girls should write about anything they want in their diaries, that is what diaries are for, after all, but it is a crime and a shame to try to confine their academic writing experiences in such a small, and poorly-gilded, cage of expectations.
Since 1987, The Concord Review has published long serious history research papers by high school girls on such subjects as the trial of Anne Hutchinson, the Great Awakening, the reform efforts of Peter the Great, the Seneca Falls Convention, the administrative and doctrinal confusions after the merger between the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church in the fourth century, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah in 1857, among many hundreds of other academic topics.
Now that the President of Harvard, the Secretary of State, the CEO of Pepsi Cola and one of the principal presidential candidates are female, perhaps it is not too soon to revisit the notion that all high school girls must be asked to write about is themselves.
Of course high school girls like to think and write about themselves and their friends, just as many boys still like to play Grand Theft Auto–San Andreas, but why should that lead to the practice of limiting their academic writing to personal matters, whether that writing has been re-branded as "Creative Nonfiction" or not.
Shakespeare is still generally credited with good creative writing, even if it was not nonfiction, but at his elementary school in Stratford, according to a recent article in Academic Questions, he "would have studied Latin and Greek over the course of eight years, in a curriculum that exposed students to essential masters, including: Lucian, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Homer, Euripides, Terence, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, Salust, Origen, Basil, Jerome et al." One can only speculate about how much more creative he would have been if he had been allowed to do some real Creative Nonfiction in school about his own daily personal life in Stratford!?
International competitions have shown us how poorly our high school students perform in math and science, but there is no international comparison of academic writing standards and performance that I know of. Perhaps that is lucky, as it seems likely that having our secondary students write about themselves most of the time has guaranteed that their writing would seem silly, superficial and solipsisitic when compared with, for example, the International Baccalaureate Extended Essays, which are generally not about high school student hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), parents, and the more existential questions such as "How do I look?" and "What should I wear to school?"
Of course we can do better. We have high school students tackling calculus, Chinese, chemistry, European history and many more challenging academic subjects. Why can't we free them as well from the anti-knowledge, anti-intellectual and anti-academic Creative Nonfiction writing assignments which so many students are now being given on which to waste their precious time?
Published April 5, 2008
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