Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Professor Harold Hill would have a degree in rhetoric these days

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Do you remember Professor Harold Hill?  He’s the fast-talking con-man who comes to River City, Iowa to sell the townspeople musical instruments and band uniforms in “The Music Man.” (The EditWife and I saw the show a few weeks ago–a really great piece of comic writing and fine music from the 1950s–I recommend it.)

Harold Hill is a charming fake, but River City doesn’t realize it. It’s fun to see the town eating up his schtick when we in the audience know he’s a con-man. One of the richest giveaway lines that we notice but the townspeople miss comes when Hill is asked why he’s not teaching the students to read music. How are they going to be able to play if they can’t read music?

“Oh I now have a revolutionary method called the Think System–where you don’t bother with notes.”This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is harold-hill.jpg

You see, his students just think the tune they want to play. That’s the new system. The townsfolk take him at his word.

Harold Hill talked about his Think System all through the musical and they never caught on. At the end, when his students who don’t know the notes get together to play a concert, it’s all grinding noise–not music at all–but the adoring parents don’t care.

As the curtain came down, I grinned in the dark and thought about all the PhD con-men and false ladies from Departments of Rhetoric. They’ve come to your local college with a pitch quite similar to Harold Hill’s.

“We have a revolutionary new method call the Think System–where you don’t bother with sentences.”

The bamboozled administrators and boards of trustees sit and listen with goofy grins on their faces. It doesn’t make sense to teach writing without sentences, but they’re the experts, right?”

The comedy goes on and on around us. It’s amusing–what the experts profess to the gullible–but we serious instructors focus on the sentence in depth. Without the sentence, nothing gets said.

Link to Harold Hill. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DE8xJpqazOM

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John G. Maguire
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Lowell MA 01852
maguirejohn@comcast.net
978-761-4515