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Why Teach Composition

In this age of television, cell phones, and text messaging, we must not lose the fine art of English prose.

Those of us living in 21st century America are in a unique position in all of human history. As a Christian and a parent, I find compelling reasons for teaching composition skills to our children.

For thousands of years people communicated primarily in words spoken directly to one another. Information was moved by speech almost exclusively. Print was available as was painting, but those forms of communication were limited especially because paper, ink, and paints were hard to come by, and chiseling in stone was time consuming.

Then came a major cultural revolution: the invention of the printing press. It is no accident that the beginning of print culture was followed by the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. Whereas oral communication was most successful with poetry and narratives, print handles exposition very well. Print appeals to reason, to analysis, to objectivity, to order. We can spend time with print, studying and analyzing it. An oral argument doesn’t hang in the air in front of you the way a printed argument is available on the page.

Until recently, America was almost exclusively a print culture. That is, for the first 100–150 years public discourse was carried on almost exclusively through print—books, pamphlets, and newspapers. Early America was almost unanimously literate. Preachers wrote out their sermons and read them to their congregations. Debates were delivered from manuscripts. As a consequence, people developed complex, thorough arguments for government, economics, and religion.

Then came the twentieth century cultural revolution—television, a picture-dependent medium. Although with a printed page in English you must begin at the upper left corner and proceed across each line then down the page line by line, a picture places no such restrictions. You look at it all at once, get a general impression, and then focus on whatever strikes your fancy. In addition, TV pictures are hurled at the viewer in such rapid succession that there is no time for reflection, only a general feeling.

Words can deal with abstract concepts; pictures cannot. That is, with words, I can explain the idea of man to you, but a picture can show you only a specific man. Words appeal to the intellect; pictures appeal to the emotions. That is not to say that some pictures are not more rational than others or that some words do not evoke deep emotions. But commercials that want to stir you to send money to starving children do not just tell you of their plight, they show you pictures.

Emotions certainly play a significant part in our relationship to God and others, but emotions are to be under the control of the intellect and the will. Scripture frequently tells us whom to love and not to love, in what circumstances to be angry, or how we are to sorrow.

Emotions are not to master us; they are the servants of our intellect and will.

Looking around, I see two significant consequences of this cultural shift. First, we don’t analyze and meditate on issues any more. For example, the last time someone wanted your opinion, did he ask, “What do you think about . . . ?” or did he say “How do you feel about . . . ?” When you express an opinion, do you say, “I think that . . .” or do you say, “I feel that . . .”?

Second, our instinctive reaction to people and circumstances is likely to be emotional rather than rational. When a husband and wife or parent and child disagree about something, the tendency today is not to sit across a table and list pros and cons and possible solutions. The initial response all too often is to yell or to clam up.

I see reading and writing as a necessary and effective antidote to the excessive emotionalism of this culture. It was not arbitrary of God to communicate with us in written words.

Writing demands concentration, logic, order, and complex thinking skills. Properly taught, composition will foster these qualities in your child.

The apostle Peter admonishes Christians, “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). His admonition implies three things: (1) We have a hope. That is, we have assurance that our salvation through Jesus Christ alone is sufficient to gain us eternal life. (2) We have an answer that provides a reason for this hope. We’ve thought it through and come to rational, logical conclusions based on the evidence of Scripture and creation. (3) We are prepared. We possess the necessary communication skills— both oral and written—to present Christ to an unbelieving world.

Both the Christian religion and our technological culture require mental attitudes and skills developed only through reading and writing. Composition is not simply an art form to enhance the curriculum; it is a fundamental skill to prepare your child for working in a complex technological society and for fellowshipping in eternity with the Living Word.

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