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Who Said Johnny Can't Write?


Stephanie Roach, Ph.D., University of Michigan-Flint


Not unlike today, in the mid-70s, national newspapers decried “Nation Becoming Illiterate,” “Student Skills Decline Unequalled in History.”  Justified or not, we were in the midst of, as Education Digest decreed, “The Great American Writing Crisis.” 


The flagship of the reported crisis was, of course, Newsweek’s “Why Johnny Can’t Write.”  Hitting newsstands December 8, 1975, the cover story by General Editor Merrill Sheils reached over two million readers nationwide, and then millions more in over 30 different countries and 13 languages when it was reprinted as the “best in current reading” by Reader’s Digest in April 1976.  The late 70s saw numerous copycat articles, and in practically every year since, articles in the spirit of “Why Johnny Can’t Write” have commanded attention in the popular press.  As the National Conversation on Writing campaign is trying to change the headline, I think it is important to look back at how Newsweek  told a story of Johnny’s writing that put fear in the hearts of readers and has held fast to the national imagination. 


The impact of “Why Johnny Can’t Write” begins with its cover shot of Johnny attempting to write and failing. This Johnny, white, middle class, presumably a future leader of American government and industry, can’t write, and it is stamped unavoidably across his chest. The textual and visual argument is really that Johnny can’t write. Why is not really the focus here.


The “Contents” page teaser then short-hands the cover title “Why Johnny Can’t Write” as “Writing Crisis” generating further alarm.  Only 11 teaser headings in all the issues of Newsweek in 1975 were altered in this way instead of simply repeating the language of the cover. Here the shift puts the emphasis on fear.   


The opening sentences of “Why Johnny Can’t Write” are clear, then, on just how frightened we should be:


If your children are attending college, the chances are that when they graduate they will be unable to write ordinary, expository English with any real degree of structure and lucidity.  If they are in high school and planning to attend college, the chances are less than even that they will be able to write English at the minimal college level when they get there.  If they are not planning to attend college, their skills in writing English may not even qualify them for secretarial or clerical work.  And if they are attending elementary school, they are almost certainly not being given the kind of required reading material, much less writing instruction, that might make it possible for them eventually to write comprehensible English. Willy-nilly, the U.S. educational system is spawning a generation of semiliterates. (Sheils 58)


Alarmist?  Sure. But powerful. And to support the idea that none of our Johnnies can write ordinary, expository, comprehensible, basic, English with any degree of structure and lucidity, we are given four examples of Johnny’s poor writing. 


Sources, of course, where Johnny is in the writing process, the writing context—details that could lead to real discussion of what is happening in Johnny’s writing and why—are not identified.  Johnny’s writing is not to be read on its own terms.  It is to be read solely within the context of the article: Johnny can’t write.        


It’s obvious, in our modern world of today theirs a lot of impreciseness in expressing thoughts we have.   –– 18-year old college freshman


My famous person whom I admire the most is John Wayne.  He is a famous person in many people’s eyes of America.   ––17-year old high-school student


Perhaps you are noticing these don’t seem that bad . . .


A third excerpt from Johnny’s work gives a bit more of a start with its obvious and repeated misspellings, yet it still isn’t exactly devoid of structure or lucidity.


The old brige was a swing brige and it was a real old brige.  The bords was rotten in the brige and you could see right through the brige and some places the bord was missing.     –– 13-year old junior-high student


But it is the last sample that gives the most pause


John F. Kenedy if he had not bu-en sh-aht he would be pres-dent now, and in World War II he was a hero in the war, and he had a lat of naney [money?] and a nice fanily, and his wife was very nice, and when I die I would like to b bur-u-id in a plac[k] like that.     –– 17-year high-school student


I think we can agree this piece (excerpt? full essay? We simply don’t know) demonstrates far beyond the others the claimed failing mechanics and sentence structure of our nation’s youth.  However, it is worth considering the idea that Newsweek doesn’t see the real threat embedded in this one excerpt but in all the excerpts writ equally large above the title.  The layout doesn’t privilege any one of the four samples or point to one as particularly worse than another.  Newsweek has presented four smoking guns, four cherry-picked examples designed to give pause, four representations of crisis, four ways to make us very afraid of this one thing: if these Johnnies are our future America, what future does America have?  We can see, then, that one of the main problems left for us is that in the process of telling us Johnny can’t write, Newsweek was supporting an argument that good writing is correct writing and powerfully displaying in four meant-to-be-frightening cases what’s wrong with Johnny’s writing—surface error.  Surface error that Johnny’s writing teachers, we are told, don’t care about.


With a no-confidence vote in Johnny’s teachers, “Why Johnny Can’t Write” ends with a call to the cultured literates, an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland, a dialogue between Alice and Humpty Dumpty where Humpty argues stubbornly (and from Alice’s point of view, arrogantly, impractically, and infuriatingly) that words can mean whatever Humpty wants them to mean: “The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’” (Sheils 65).  Alice is to be seen as the reasoned voice of Newsweek, arguing that, certainly, such a thing as making words mean anything one wants should not be possible. To say that such a thing is possible, as Humpty does, smiling “contemptuously,” replying in “scornful” tones  is to be the threat to language and society “Why Johnny Can’t Write” is so afraid of.  The final word of the Alice excerpt (and of Newsweek’s article) is Humpty’s haunting refrain: “’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be Master—that’s all’.”


If the opening pages and samples of Johnny’s writing support a real fear that Johnny can’t write, the end of the article suggests a related and more consuming terror: that Johnny, who cannot be trusted with language, will be the Master anyway.  As one of Newsweek’s readers spelled out the fear in a biting letter to the editor: “If u cn rd this, why should i learn 2 right like u due?”  


The view that good writing is correct writing naturally leads to a fear that something very basic is being lost in even the smallest of mistakes.  Yet while the popular arguments dredge up powerful fear about Johnny’s writing, the academic response is often dismissive of the alarm.  We scoff at the idea of crisis, particularly sudden crisis.  Yet the idea of crisis that fuels the  “Why Johnny Can’t Write” conversation is formidable: as former NCTE President Walker Gibson said at the time: “that one article reached more people . . . than a full year’s batch of all our professional publications combined”.       


Moreover, I believe how the article made its case is something we have to grapple with: “Why Johnny Can’t Write” was brilliant at generating fear. We face, then, quite a challenge—and it’s a challenge laid down for us every year—how do we counter the far reaching effects of such arguments based in fear, especially if why Johnny can’t write is not the conversation we want to have. 


The National Conversation on Writing may help to get us out of the problem of conversations we want to have or they are having all the time in the popular press by pushing the idea—the ideal—that writing and how we talk about writing really could be a collective national project of academics and the public, writing teachers and others, even those who believe in crisis and those who don’t.  Fact is we can’t ignore the fear that sustains the why Johnny can’t write conversation, yet we can’t afford for why Johnny can’t write to be the only kind of conversation we have about writing.  Steeped in celebration that “Everyone is a Writer” and setting up shop on the web, the National Conversation on Writing may not conquer “Why Johnny Can’t Write” and its legacy, but it is the start of, perhaps, better listening and, certainly,  different talking.  And in the end, the National Conversation on Writing and “Why Johnny Can’t Write” actually have one important thing in common: believing there is something at stake in how we think about writing.  


Campaign Overview
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“Literacy Crises”

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National Conversation on Writing © 2009

June 10, 2009