Wednesday, January 9, 2008

An Open Letter to My Sophomore Students – January 2008

Well, it’s finally here: the last day of English class for sophomore year. I’ve been asking you over the last week or so to do a number of exercises which I hoped would give you the chance to look back over the semester, and the year, to see what looks or feels like it might be worth remembering. I’m not sure what each of you will think, when you look back, say, a year from now, and think about what sophomore year was like for you. But there are at least a few ideas which I have tried to present to you that were of relatively great importance to me, and I thought I’d try to put them into words one more time. I’d like to talk about three closely related which have been thematic in this course. They are that being able to read well matters, that literature matters, and that the language that we use matters. Many of you have shown me, through the care and thoughtfulness you have shown throughout the year, that these things matter to you to as well. For those of you who remain perhaps unconvinced, let me try to say why they matter.

Reading well is, of course, a survival skill in high school in college. We live in an increasingly image-oriented culture, and much of the information that we have need of, or that we take pleasure in, can be found in easily digestible form on television, in the movies, or on the internet. Nevertheless, for something like three thousand years the written word has been the primary vehicle on this planet for the development of knowledge and culture and self-understanding. One way of thinking about what it means to be an educated person is to think of yourself as being a participant in the Great Conversation, which is nothing less than the history of everything that has been said and thought by human beings through the ages. If you want to do well in school, if you want to become an educated person, if you want to be able to participate in that Great Conversation, you need to be able to read and understand what is put in front of you. The materials we have looked at this year—The Merchant of Venice, The Poisonwood Bible, the poems and essays and stories we read together—may have seemed challenging to you in various ways, but, to be honest, on a scale of 1-10 in terms of difficulty, these are somewhere in the 4-5 range. As you continue your education, you will be asked to read—not just in English classes, but in history and science and economics and sociology classes—more challenging, more thought-provoking, more substantial material than anything we read together this year. It is my hope that you are leaving sophomore year with a better sense of the how of reading well: that you know what you already do relatively well, and what you need to work on doing better. Reading, like everything else, is a process, and it is a process that you can figure out and adapt and get better at. All it takes is patience, self-discipline, and the willingness to keep asking the same fundamental critical thinking questions we’ve been practicing all year: where am I now? where do I want to get to? How might I get there?

Why does literature matter? One important answer is suggested by the Christopher Clausen’s quotation I asked you to write into your commonplace books at the beginning of the semester, “All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: What kind of world is this? How should we live in it?” I would argue that these are truly essential questions. I suppose there are some people who might argue that it makes no difference how we live, that we should just do whatever we want to do and not worry about the consequences. Those people probably do exist, but they are not the kind of people that I want to have around me, and I hope they are not the kind of people you want to have around you. If in fact there are some courses of action that are wiser than others, some kinds of behavior that are better than others, some ways of living that make more sense than others, I think it’s fairly important that we make some effort to try to figure out what those ways are. This is where literature comes in. We all live our lives constrained by time and circumstance. If you have to make all of your decisions based only on your own experience and the experience of the people immediately around you, you are drawing upon a very shallow pool of experience indeed. As the American philosopher George Santayana famously stated, those who are ignorant of the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. Fortunately, the Great Conversation has been going on for centuries. You can broaden your sense of your options, you can broaden your experience, you can develop your sense of engagement and compassion, by reading history, by reading novels, by reading essays and stories and poems, all of which have been put together by people very much like you, people who have cared enough about living well to try to explore the possibilities and the implications through the act of writing. Barbara Kingsolver wrote The Poisonwood Bible because she cared about a number of things that she hoped to be able to make you care about as well. If you find yourself in agreement with her, that’s good. If you find yourself in disagreement with her, that’s even better. The moment you begin to talk back to her, in class, on paper, or even in your mind, you are entering into the Great Conversation, and you are in a position to learn something about the world, and about yourself.

Finally, the language that we use is also important, but the reasons are more subtle and perhaps harder to explain. It occurs to me as I write this that we haven’t talked specifically about this issue very much this semester, although it’s been very much part of the unarticulated subtext of the course. In abbreviated form, my argument is simply this: language is the vehicle of thought. If you are in the habit of using language carelessly and unreflectively, your thinking is going to lack clarity, precision, logic, or any of the other standards of quality which we have been trying to achieve this year. I’d like to be able to make the assumption that you all can see the value in being able to think clearly and communicate your thinking effectively. If you make that assumption, then I think it follows of necessity that you will see the value of paying attention to words—the words you use, and the words others use. Vaclav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and political activist who rose to be President of the Czech Republic, has an essay in which he makes the argument that “Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical.” If you care about the kind of person you are, you should care about the words you use, and how you use them. Your words, like your actions, help to define who you are. Learning to speak well and write well is not just something you do so you can get good grades in English. It’s something you do so that you can clarify your thinking, explore the world of thought, and become a more responsible person. If you truly understand this—and from what I have seen this year, many of you do—then you are always going to be able to find your way.

I would also like to say something about the semester projects. We have talked a lot about Quality this semester, what it is and how to attain it. My challenge to you was to come up with a project that represented Quality and linked to your essential questions. It was very gratifying to me to see the amount of time and effort that you put into the projects, and the level of performance that they represented. Some people like to make the argument that there is no way to define quality, that all judgment is subjective. With all due respect, I beg to differ. True quality takes many forms, but it is recognizable, and I did in fact recognize it in many of your projects. I hope that at some point in the future you will look back on your projects and remember sophomore English as a time in your life when you outperformed your own expectations. And I hope that you will have that experience many times more in the future.

There is of course a good deal more that I could say, much of which you have already heard from me before, perhaps more often than you might have wished. Let me close out, then, simply by wishing each of you well during the second semester and as you continue on to your junior and senior year. I’ve enjoyed working with you this year. If at any time I can be of help to you as you continue, feel free to come by and ask for help, or just to say hello.

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