The Importance of Reading…and Writing

Students hard at work in an Upper School English class taught by Jean Ricketts in 1967.

When I was a student at MFS, I had superb English teachers like Jean Ricketts, Carolyn Hedges, Mona Darnell, and Jerry Delamater. They instilled in me an appreciation for the power of the written word. They taught me to keep it short, avoid reference errors, eschew the passive voice, and never split infinitives. I try hard to be true to those learnings—but regularly fall short.

We read books that were not part of the 1960s high school canon. The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, and To Kill a Mockingbird were not on the syllabus. Those novels are—and were—great literature. But the English department chose unusual and hard titles. We felt like college students as we probed the motives of billionaire Claire Zachanassian in Durrenmatt’s The Visit and tried to connect with Lucas Beauchamp in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (and we felt ever-so sophisticated in knowing that Beauchamp was pronounced “Beacham” in Jim Crow Mississippi). We explored existentialism in Waiting for Godot by Beckett and The Stranger by Camus.

Writing coherent essays based on rich, unconventional literature was a challenge. But, our assignments required us to draw on perceptions that we didn’t know we had within us, and the assignments required a degree of precision and clarity made all the more important by the ambiguity of the material. It was hard. And it was good because it was hard.

As this issue of Among Friends describes, a focus on unconventional literature continues at MFS. Students consume contemporary fiction and express themselves in writing and in class discussions about works such as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and many more.

There are practical benefits to studying mind-bending literature. Our students learn the timeless skill of being able to write—and think—clearly about complex ideas. As Tony Wagner put it in The Global Achievement Gap, the book that helped form the foundation of our 2011 Strategic Plan: “While it’s obviously important to write and speak correctly, the complaints I heard most frequently [from prominent business leaders] were more about fuzzy thinking and the lack of writing with a real voice.”

And our students do indeed benefit directly: In a 2015 survey done for us by Rockbridge Associates, 86% of our recent graduates reported being better prepared in “writing ability” than their peers in college or the workplace.

I hope you enjoy this issue exploring “What We Read, and Why We Write.”

Sincerely,

Larry Van Meter

Larry Van Meter ’68
Head of School

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