Friday, September 24, 2010

The following started off as a sternly worded email I wrote for some disruptive Composition students after a particularly hard week, then somehow morphed into some kind of Composition manifesto. Anyway...

Pulling Back the Curtain: an Open Letter to Composition Students

On the first day of class, I asked you to consider why you are here. Technically speaking, you're probably taking this class because Ball State University requires you to do so. In other words, you take English 103 so that you can take English 104, so that you can complete your other CORE courses and proceed with your chosen major (which may or may not have been chosen for you), with the ultimate goal of graduating with your B.A... which is really just a prelude to grad school, maybe an internship somewhere, maybe getting married and/or starting your own company (if you're lucky).

OK... but why? All pretense aside, what's the REAL reason you're here?

The general view of academia in the United States is that adults must develop, refine, and practice their communication and critical thinking skills if they want to get anywhere in the business world. In other words, you're here so you can learn how to write better memos to your boss and/or employees, not stick your foot in your mouth during board meetings, etc. But is that all?

Hell, no. Education is about something much, much more important. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Put more bluntly: ignorance is pathetic. It's cowardly and will haunt you all of your days, contaminating every single thing you say or do. Furthermore, browse any history book and you'll notice a disturbing pattern. When introspection and critical thinking go down, so too does general happiness; meanwhile, the body count goes up.

Education is and has always been the ultimate weapon against ignorance, the one thing that makes us more than the sum of our parts; it is also what shakes us to the core, what regularly fills us with doubts and uncertainty, what makes us uncomfortable--but that's actually a good thing because it also puts us in a position to question what we're told and, if we're worth our salt, reach a higher plane of understanding.

Does that mean we always have to agree? Absolutely not. I'd be bored to fits of rage by a class in which all the students agreed with me--just as I hope you'll have the courage to not always surround yourselves with people who agree with you, to consider (if only for a moment) the views of people you sternly disagree with, if for no other reason than it will make you a better human being.

But this isn't a trade school and I'm not here to coddle you or help you learn how to write a convincing business memo or draft a better commercial for your marketing class (although if you learn that along the way, great). I'm here because there are things I know that you don't. I could probably be out there making six figures, clawing my way up the corporate ladder to a beach house somewhere; instead, I'm making less than a manager at a fast food restaurant, specifically so I can have the opportunity to try and prepare you for what's coming.

Some days, maybe it seems like all we're doing here is discussing hypotheticals or watching videos, analyzing the costumes people are wearing, guessing what so-and-so said in a board room during casting calls, etc. Not so. Whether you're conservative or liberal, male or female, regardless of color, major, religion, sexual orientation, or hair length (thank God mullets went out of style!) what I REALLY want you to learn, and to practice, and to take with you for the rest of your natural life, is the critical thinking and introspective skills that will keep you from being manipulated by an endless parade of politicians, corporations, and everyday citizens who make money (or just get their kicks) off convincing you to vote, or think, or act against your best interests.

So there it is. The way I see it, if I don't occasionally make you want to pull your hair out or ransack a hotel room like you're a roadie for a rock band, then I haven't done my job right. But it's a two way street. If, throughout readings and conversations encompassing wars, human rights, consumerism, propaganda, identity, and even metaphysics, that longing to be a part of something greater than ourselves... clips, essays, stories and poems written by people who have been everywhere you've been, who have wondered and gone through everything you have or ever will, who are part of a literary canon you are encouraged to join every time you sit down at your computer or pick up a pen... well, then you're probably in the wrong class.

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