Struggle to Write College Application Essay Exposes Lack of Training in Creative Thinking K-12

Guest Blogger Mary Collins taught at Johns Hopkins University’s MA in Writing Program for 12 years and is currently an Associate Professor of Narrative Nonfiction  and Director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Development at Central Connecticut State University. She offers this post as a continuation of Norm Wallen’s article for Academe online called “Critical Thinking–Again?”

“My students told me they had never taken a class like mine before.”

A professor from an Ivy League university shared this story with a group of 22 participants at the “Introduction to Contemplative Higher Education” workshop held recently at Omega in New York. Her special recipe: incorporate meditation, reflection and other less traditional approaches into a science-based curriculum. Her provost highlighted her classroom work as a benchmark for others to follow.

People in the room—most of them either college administrators or professors—clearly considered this a good news story.

I was horrified.

What does it say that juniors and seniors at an Ivy League school have never had a class that has taught them the art of reflection, trained focus (aka mediation), and nonlinear thinking when it comes to problem solving? Imagine if a professor in an engineering department stood up and said, “My students say they have never had a class like mine!” His special recipe: showing them the fundamentals of algebra. We’d be outraged that the students had never been exposed to such basic skills.

At Central Connecticut State University, where I am an Associate Professor of Narrative Nonfiction, and where at least half of the state’s public school teachers receive some of their professional training, I coach certain students in the art of teaching the personal essay. They then go into public high schools around the state and volunteer to work with juniors on the art of the college application essay.

To my complete shock, in both the inner city schools and affluent suburban schools, nearly all of the students say they have never been asked to write a substantive first person essay before in school. They’ve done some freewheeling journaling, but have no idea how to infer rather than bluntly summarize a point, how to tell a personal story within the framework of the larger culture they live in, how to engage in self-reporting that leads to insight. They come from school systems where administrators and many teachers are convinced that they cannot “afford” to focus on creative writing, meditation, personal reflection and other abstract creative thinking skills that are difficult to measure but essential to an engaged life as a citizen in a democracy.

As Dr. Harold Roth, Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, showed in his presentation at Omega, the hard science of contemplation and brain chemistry indicates that the best insights come when we train our minds to flow freely without clear goals or, to put my own spin on it, without worry about Standards of Learning or Rubrics.  Yet, almost across the board, the public school systems continue to move away from precisely the skill set students most need for advanced thinking and problem solving.

A few weeks prior to attending the workshop on Contemplative Learning, I came across an obituary in the New York Times for Jean Anyon, former Professor of Education Policy at CUNY, and author of a 1980 seminal study, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” She argued that her research in public grammar schools showed that in schools with children from predominately working-class families, teachers focused the curriculum on rote learning and the art of following procedures; at more affluent public schools, teachers emphasized analytical powers.

I’ve seen this divide at the college and graduate school level myself, since I taught for 12 years part-time at Johns Hopkins’ graduate MA in Writing program prior to taking a full-time tenured slot to teach undergraduates at Central Connecticut State University. When I made the switch I did adjust my curriculum, but solely because of the shift from graduate to undergraduates; I did not take into account that I had changed from a private to public university.

My best CCSU students had the intellect to handle anything I could have tossed at a JHU undergraduate, but most of them did not have the same levels of social support for the more abstract learning or the same levels of confidence (even when it was completely justified). Many first generation college-bound students will actually not even tell their parents they are taking creative writing courses because the parents do not understand how a class like that, as opposed to nursing or engineering, can possibly be worth the tuition. When they tell me they have “never had a class like this before,” I do not rejoice; I am deeply saddened that they have not received the training they deserve.

In the past, even though Anyon was right to express outrage at the huge class divide in curriculum, at least some public school students in some schools were told to value the creative skill set; indeed, it was considered the ticket to life as a leader and thinker. What the professor’s tale at the Omega workshop and my own experiences reveal: now even students at our most elite private universities come to college without vital training in contemplative and creative thinking. The class divide remains, but now it’s truly the top 1 percent, a subset of elite within a subset of the elite, that receive this crucial curriculum.

Universities have created MFA programs at an incredible rate (from a few dozen to hundreds in the last 20 years), which seems like a good trend, but I argue that it further perpetuates the perception that creative thinking skills are for a professional class, a select few, rather than a fundamental aspect of any citizen’s education. Of course it does mean we have more foot soldiers for creativity for hire but the public schools, colleges and universities make little room for them in their curriculum plans.

By 8th grade, all students should be able to:

  • Distinguish between a topic and an angle
  • Write an essay that infers the primary point rather than states it directly
  • Understand the difference between third person and first person
  • Utilize basic reporting skills to ask questions of others and to ask questions of themselves
  • Combine research and reflection in a first person essay
  • Be exposed to meditation and other practices that develop focus and still the mind

By the time they reach their junior year in high school and decide they might want to apply to college, they can sit in their English class, work on their college application essays and tell the teacher, “Oh, I’ve had a class like this before.”

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