Adams Sherman Hill, an Open Letter to Students of English

To Students of English,

I am sure that each of you are confident in your ability to write. Whether you are partial to Latin, mathematics, English, or all of these subjects be that you are still in grammar or high school, most have an assurance in English— in their own ability to communicate by way of written language. Since you were young, one might assume you have been taught with the intent to achieve mastery in the craft. After all, despite the floundering of certain scholars to produce works with even modest grammatical correctness, it can be noted that every subject requires, at some level, great knowledge of proper writing. However, it is clear that these assumptions are flawed.

Two centuries past the difficulty with education prior to University was a lack of teaching English at all. If the subject was given two hours of instruction within one week it was considered as taking up more time than what should have been allotted. It appears at present, though an ample amount of English is being taught, that the issue now lies within the content of the teaching. At stages in your schooling when, perhaps, the teacher should have had a tighter reign as to what you all were writing and how you were writing it he or she instead opted for a rather liberal amount of student freedom. In addition, educators of the English language have chosen to eschew such sound authors as Macaulay, Thackeray, or Dickens for others who seem to be more preoccupied with “risk taking” in their writing as opposed to a strong focus on the very mechanics that make writing what it is. As a result, the large majority of students are seriously lacking both a command of grammar, punctuation, and, in some instances, spelling as well as an under appreciation for fine literature.

I find it necessary to take the time to remind each of you of the weight your mother tongue holds. One concept that is the same now as it was then is of the general perspective that literacy is an easy skill to grasp and maintain. To my disdain, many educators and students alike seem to be under the false impression that once literacy has been acquired, it no longer needs to be honed. This could not be farther from the truth. I want each of you to dispel this skepticism, along with your own personal misconceptions, and recognize that grammar, punctuation, and spelling should not merely be afterthoughts, but rather muscles that remain continually flexed. Without these firm foundations, you yourself will not be grounded in any aspect of your native language.

It was for these reasons that, in 1874, my University, Harvard, integrated a portion of English composition into the previously established entrance exam. I was, in effect, let down in an immense way when I discovered that nearly half of the students who partook in the exam also failed. I later determined that of those that failed, some did so due to an utter ignorance of the content and some did so due to an utter ignorance of English conventions. I want neither of these severe mistakes to be made by you. I am aware that now the conduct of Universities is vastly different in both the way students are admitted and in the curriculum itself. I can accept these changes to an extent, but I will continue to speak on behalf of not only what is taught in the primary, secondary, and post-secondary settings in regards to English, but also the amount. As I once wrote, “More work is done in the schools; greater proficiency.”

It seems fair to conclude that, if the past is any indication, despite the present shortcomings, both English education and her students will strive to make significant improvements in the coming decades. Although learning from the past has a negative connotation when speaking in general, in this particular situation learning from the past will provide you the greatest hope for your future. Retreating to the very basics upon which written language relies will enable you to again reengage with the one study worth the utmost pursuance throughout your education and beyond. Do not, as was evident with those who were not successful with the inaugural English composition Harvard exam, start an English reform purely for yourself. Rather, set upon the ideals I have outlined in your— and all of the students to come— interest.

Adams Sherman Hill, Harvard University

February 2016


Adams Sherman Hill. Photo by Bryan A. Garner via Twitter.


One thought on “Adams Sherman Hill, an Open Letter to Students of English

  1. Pingback: Adams Sherman Hill, an Open Letter to Students of English | Teaching the Writerly Life

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