Writing and High Jumping

The solutions to the changing student body in American colleges after the Civil War greatly affected how you were taught to write. To understand that, let’s compare the teaching of writing to high jumping.

The Scissors Kick

high jump

In the 1870s, high jumpers used the scissor-kick.

The world record was 5’6”, a height elementary school jumpers clear today.

The Harvard Method of teaching writing set the bar quite low. It advised students to write five paragraphs, even though that cannot possibly work for long papers. It also did not show students how to find an effective subject. The creators of the Harvard Method were conscious advocates of Platonism – that is, the idea that writing is a talent.

The Sitting Position


In about 1910, high jumpers modified the scissor-kick by jumping sideways or in a sitting position. The world was 6’6”.

In faculty of Yale University decided that if you can read well you can write well, even though they had not proof that their theory was right. (It’s not.) They therefore stopped teaching writing and only taught literature. The creators of this Writing About Literature approach were also conscious advocates of Platonism.

The Western Roll

western roll

After World War II, high jumpers began rolling over the bar chest-first. Most male world-class jumpers cleared 7’0. Russia’s Valerie Brumel carefully analyzed each part of the process and jumped 7’6”.

Starting in 1964, Expressivism showed teachers how to break writing down into a process. However, the leading Expressivists insisted that students should write about themselves – that is, personal-experience papers – even though personal experiences papers are not written in college or the workplace. The Expressivists were conscious advocates of Platonism, but in a new way: They believed (as Plato also did) that all truth is within us and only needs to be explored.

Fosbury Flop

In 1964, an Oregon high school student, Richard Fosbury, started going over the bar backwards. He combined all the previous jumping styles, but in a new way.

At first, everyone laughed at him. They called his method “The Fosbury Flop.” When Fosbury won the gold medal in the Olympics and broke the world record, people paid attention.



Now all serious jumpers use his method, and the world record is over 8’. That’s like jumping over most walls in your house!

A few writing teachers began emphasizing the fundamentals structure in the teaching of writing, something that Writing About Literature and Expressivism did not do and that the Harvard Method did in a way that is not consistent with how communications works. (We do not communicate in five-paragraph essays.) These writing instructors suggest that we need to turn back to how Aristotle taught com-munications. Mathematics and science are based on evidence. So was Aristotle’s approach to communications instruction.