Verbum Ultimum: The Writing on the Wall

Dartmouth needs to increase its focus on writing.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 9/23/16 12:25am

Any liberal arts college can be characterized by its emphasis on the written word. Be it literature, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry or anything in between, a liberal arts education places an explicit emphasis on the ability to effectively communicate, through writing, about whatever your area of study happens to be. As a liberal arts college, Dartmouth should be no exception, and it doesn’t claim to be. Indeed, two of the first nine classes a student ever takes at Dartmouth are supposed to be dedicated to ensuring that they can write clearly and effectively. After the much-lauded first-year writing requirements, however, it seems like the College’s emphasis on, and possibly respect for, writing declines significantly. It is treated as a means of getting ideas across about your subject of interest, and not much more. The fact that Dartmouth doesn’t have a writing, creative writing or communications major severely disadvantages us as students and makes us considerably less competitive going into the real world after graduation.

No matter what the career path, we all need the effective communication skills that a more comprehensive writing education would provide. Lawyers need to write arguments; doctors need to communicate with peers and patients; video game designers need to pitch their concept to a room full of investors who have no idea how graphics work; and the list goes on and on. In so many ways, Dartmouth is preparing us to eventually be leaders in whatever field we decide to go into. Many of the best leaders are often those who can communicate most effectively. No matter the context, someone who is practiced in constructing a clear argument and getting it across to all different kinds of people is going to command their respect and attention. From group projects to teams of junior consultants to even friendships and relationships, so many conflicts arise not because people have goals that are inherently opposed, but rather because they can’t communicate what it is that they want.

Writing often and writing well also serve to cultivate people’s critical thinking skills. In a day and age when people blurt out the first thing that comes out of their mouths all over Twitter and internet comment threads, a consistent pursuit of academic writing teaches people to consider the power their words can wield. Our lives are now intrinsically tied to the internet, a medium that if, left unchecked, could erode measured and respectful discourse. Now more than ever, students graduating from a top institution need to be able to communicate their ideas in a way that is respectful and measured enough to not alienate people who don’t agree with them, but also clear and effective enough that those same people actually reconsider their point of view instead of putting their hands over their ears.

We have also come to a place where creative writing is seriously undervalued in elite colleges, ours included. Fiction and creative nonfiction are some of the best means to get people who may not see a specific point of view to empathize with those who they previously couldn’t identify with and understand the very wide range of perspectives which they may never be exposed to otherwise. For example, many Dartmouth students could never understand what it is like to grow up as part of a minority group in an inner city. However, through effective creative writing, those people who will never live that reality could at least come to empathize with it.

The case for the importance of a substantial writing skill set is clear, which makes it all the more frustrating that the College doesn’t represent it as well as it should. Creative writing deserves to have its own major, but it is confined to a concentration. Writing is just as valid an art form as studio art, music and film, yet it is the only one among those that doesn’t have its own major. It’s baffling that there are multiple majors about the study of different literatures, but not a single one focused on the creation of our own. Nonfiction writing is also woefully underrepresented in our curriculum, and those classes that do teach it don’t get the attention or respect they deserve.

It’s time that the College started taking writing seriously such that every student who goes through Dartmouth can leave here with a substantial understanding of how to write well. There needs to be an outlet for students who not only want to use writing as a tool, but want to make it their life; in other words there needs to be at least one major that is focused completely on writing. As it stands now, writing classes are scattered all over different departments, and anyone who wants to seriously pursue it needs to go through far too many hoops. Writing and communication are the basis for our world, and Dartmouth needs to start treating it as a central pillar of our education.

The editorial board consists of the editor-in-chief, the publisher, the executive editors and the opinion editor.

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