No Shame in Our Game. Ever.

Late last month, the New York Post ran a story about Murry Bergtraum High School. The school apparently allows students who are at risk of failing to take their courses by watching videos and then completing a test. It’s an approach with quite a few problems, which I do not intend to discuss in detail here. For the purposes of this blog, the problem that matters most is that it’s possible to pass a course that should last a semester in about three weeks, without teacher supervision. The result is that students are getting passing grades with no real substantive knowledge of the subject matter.

School administration asked the students to write letters in defense of the school’s program. The Post put one on the front page and excerpted several more of them. The Post‘s point is that the letters are written so badly that they establish the worthlessness of the blended learning program. I will concede that the letters are riddled with grammatical errors. I will not quote them here (you’ll see why in a second), but if you want to see them, go have a look at the Post‘s website.

As an editor, I’ve got a few things to say about this.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I have worked on copy that doesn’t read much more smoothly than this. It was not written by high school students. Some of it was written by lawyers. The fact that it got all the way to me suggests that at least one other person proofread it and did little to correct it. So yes, those high school students need help, but so do a lot of other, better educated people who ought to know what they’re doing.

Second, I think we may be losing sight of the fact that these students are participating in a letter-writing campaign. They were offered the chance to write about something that matters to them, and they rose to the challenge. Properly nurtured, a fired-up student with a pen (or a tablet or a smartphone, whatever) might mature into a force for real change. Making that student’s writing the object of ridicule for a worldwide audience is not proper nurturing.

Finally, I understand that someone involved with this program ought to be ashamed of what’s happening here. I’m not sure the Post is shaming the right people. I don’t know what I would have told the Post to do in this instance, honestly, but I’m convinced that this approach embarrasses the students. I just don’t think that’s necessary, although I can’t say that there’s another way to make the point as effectively.

The editor’s job is to ensure error-free, easily readable product. Ideally, edited copy shouldn’t really feel like reading at all. A reader should be able to easily immerse himself in the world the writer creates, even if that world is just the size of a letter to the editor. The writer’s voice, that individual spark each writer brings to each project, is the most important part of a writer’s work. The writing’s got to be flawless, but that’s because errors prevent a reader from getting fully involved in the work.

Editing matters, but the act of writing matters more. Without a willing writer, an editor becomes superfluous. We writers and editors have a duty to grow the industry by teaching new writers, whether they’re considering a career in the field or just trying to write a letter. We do not perform this duty by making fun of student writers.

Now go teach a high school student something. Start with the Oxford comma; I’ve never met one who didn’t form an opinion on that right away. Seriously.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.