Writing Is a Practical Skill

Matt Yglesias defends the liberal arts from a hackish utilitarianism:


In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications. Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. 

If you can compose an email that's 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you're going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who's pretty good at his job and a person who's able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.

Allow me to use this instance to turn back to the only subject that matters--the Civil War. 

All kidding aside, people are often shocked Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs because they communicate with such incredible clarity. Today you can still find people who argue that the real genius behind Grant's writing was Mark Twain. 

Part of this is the notion that Grant wasn't good at anything except mass slaughter and drunken binges, and thus couldn't be a good writer. But I also don't think people realize that writing is often just about the work clear communication. Grant was fighting at a time when writing clear orders was extremely important to military success, and he excelled at it. His memoir have the same kind of hard brevity you'd find useful coming from a commander. 

On secession for instance:

There is little doubt in my mind now that the prevailing sentiment of the South would have been opposed to secession in 1860 and 1861, if there had been a fair and calm expression of opinion, unbiased by threats, and if the ballot of one legal voter had counted for as much as that of any other. But there was no calm discussion of the question. Demagogues who were too old to enter the army if there should be a war, others who entertained so high an opinion of their own ability that they did not believe they could be spared from the direction of the affairs of state in such an event, declaimed vehemently and unceasingly against the North; against its aggressions upon the South; its interference with Southern rights, etc., etc. 

They denounced the Northerners as cowards, poltroons, negro-worshippers; claimed that one Southern man was equal to five Northern men in battle; that if the South would stand up for its rights the North would back down. Mr. Jefferson Davis said in a speech, delivered at La Grange, Mississippi, before the secession of that State, that he would agree to drink all the blood spilled south of Mason and Dixon's line if there should be a war. The young men who would have the fighting to do in case of war, believed all these statements, both in regard to the aggressiveness of the North and its cowardice. They, too, cried out for a separation from such people. 

The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre--what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.

These are some of the clearest sentences I've ever read. They obviously are a part of American "literature." But "literature" shouldn't be walled off. It is always a good idea to be able communicate clearly--no matter the field. 

As a side-note I'd add that people, for some reason, consider writing to be "mystical." I'm not sure why. It's always felt like a trade to me--almost physically laborious. 
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in National

From This Author

Just In