MAXWELL:  Writing should not be a punishment

1/20/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In his continuing zeal to embarrass President Clinton, Rep. Henry Hyde, on Jan. 17, read a letter from a third-grade student in Chicago during his closing remarks at the Senate impeachment trial. The student, William Preston Summers, chastises the president for lying.

Fair enough. Clinton should be chastised for lying, and he should be punished. But what punishment is appropriate? William, 8, having been coached by his father and taught in an American public school, has the perfect punishment for the prez.

Here are excerpts from his missive: “I have thought of a punishment for the President of the United State of America. The punishment should be that he should write a 100 word essay by hand. I have to write an essay when I lie. . . . I do not believe the President tells the truth any more right now. After he writes the essay and tells the truth, I will believe him again.”

What was Hyde, a self-appointed keeper of the nation’s morality, thinking when he shared a letter that considers writing punishment? Hyde should be ashamed of himself. He has insulted every writing teacher in the United States who, each day, has to fight the perception that writing is drudgery.

A friend, a writing teacher at Eckerd College, told me about an incident involving her daughter, an elementary school student. When the child’s class was preparing to play field hockey, she told the teacher that she did not want to play goalie because her skills “sucked” at that position. Her punishment? Write an essay discussing the inappropriateness of the word suck. The mother went to the school and scolded the teacher for his crime.

In his book, Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers, Roy Peter Clark, a writing professor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, sees writing as punishment as a Skinnerian yoke:

“Teachers try to modify the behavior of students by creating negative consequences for misbehavior. In one school, students who misbehave badly are given a choice between suspension or writing an essay (the death penalty or life imprisonment). The unintended side effect of this process is to create in the mind of the student a perpetual association between punishment and the act of writing, in the same way that the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange was conditioned to hate Beethoven.”

If William is typical of most U.S. public school pupils, then we are in big trouble. At 8, he already has been taught to hate writing. Reports claim that the elder Summers forced the child to write the letter as punishment for having lied about not starting a fight.

“The tendency to equate writing with punishment is so deeply ingrained in our educational system that it has been reflected in popular culture,” Clark wrote. “During an episode of the television comedy Different Strokes, an otherwise enlightened teacher gives Arnold and his classmates a 100 word essay to write as punishment for misbehaving in the hallway.”

William’s father, 31-year-old Bobby, is in a prime position to ruin writing for future teachers and students. He is a graduate student in political science and a part-time college teacher. In a P.S. accompanying his son’s letter to Hyde, Bobby wrote: “Dear Rep. Hyde, I made my son William either write you a letter or an essay as punishment for lying. Part of his defense for his lying was that the president lied. He’s still having difficulty understanding why the president can lie and not be punished.”

If truth be told, I am willing to bet my paycheck that the elder Summers and Hyde are the ones having angst while trying to cope with Clinton’s mendacity. William would much rather be at swim practice, where he was when he told the lie that landed him in trouble.

“When writing becomes punishment,” Clark said, “all of the positive elements of learning _ organization, discovery and communication _ disappear. . . . In too many schools, writing is a recurring nightmare for students. . . . Their writing anxiety, their “instinctive’ hatred of writing, is not instinctive at all but learned.”

Indeed, William has learned the hard way that writing is punishment. His parents told the Chicago Tribune that the Clinton letter to Hyde was the boy’s third punishment essay on lying.

Hyde obviously believed that he was doing America a huge favor when he read the child’s letter to the nation. Instead, though, he undercut the hard work of our thousands of writing teachers who must try to undo the damage done by the likes of Bobby Summers. I want to see him and his hero, Hyde, punished. I do not want them to write essays. Who would read their sanctimonious tripe? I want them taken to the woodshed to have their rears whipped until they cannot sit.