Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students and their parents view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him. — MORE —
A long time ago I used to sit and grade “essays” in English comp. I looked forward to reading the work of maybe 10% of my students. Then there were the ones with promise and commensurate willingness to improve. They were welcome challenges. The rest I dreaded. As a teaching assistant I dreaded the rest of the hopeless ones. But I slogged on through twenty or so papers because I believed that English composition was important and fundamental to making logical minds. The ability to write even the five paragraph essay, an extended definition or a cause-effect exposition seemed important to preserve civility and good citizenship in a democratic republic. How can you vote if you don’t know when a politician bombards you with oversimplified causes and argumentum ad hominem.
Truth is you know and “argument to the man” when someone attacks the person instead of his mistaken ideas. It seems natural to know it. Who cares what it’s called?
I do, but that is me. I also believe life is richer having read a little Shakespeare. In the case of The Bard, I have no doubt that millions can live beautiful, productive lives without ever having met Hamlet. My thing is not for everyone.
I have also known high school friends who never darkened an English professor’s office and can apply fine logic to life and letters. It seems a natural act to sense the illogical. Or they had excellent high school teachers.
At the same time it is a very sad day when college students debunk the essay and surf the Internet to plagiarize and thus circumvent essential mental discipline. But I guess no one misses what he has never known — the delight of learning, often just for the hell of it.