Since 1932, and on and off prior to that, Oxford has been requiring as essay as part of a multi-day assessment [it consists of 12 hours of essays over two days. Half are on the applicants’ academic specialties, the other half on general subjects, with questions like: “Do the innocent have nothing to fear?” “Isn’t global warming preferable to global cooling?” “How many people should there be?” and the surprisingly relevant, because this is Britain: “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?”] for entrance to All Souls College that some have called the hardest exam in the world. It is the “One Word Essay.” Now don’t get excited kids… it is not the answer that is one word; it is the prompt. You get a single noun and three hours to work your magic. Water. Bias. Innocence. Style. Censorship. Charity. Reproduction. Corruption. Novelty. Chaos. Mercy. Harmony. Miracle. Conversion.
Oh. My. God.
I cannot imagine a more enjoyable task, and my hyperbole is absolutely sincere. This would be something that I would love so much, I am filing it away for my imminent return to the classroom (beware…) I would love to see what students would come up with and I think the results, no matter the quality would be so telling. It’s brilliant. I mean, even if it is, as one person describes in the article, “an exercise in showmanship to avoid answering the question,” doesn’t that demonstrate certain skill sets (or a lack thereof)? No matter, it has been scrapped.
And I think that is a crying shame. Seriously. I know that some of my former students would say that this is the assignment of a lazy teacher… ‘can’t even put a real question together,’ ‘just want to give the students something that takes up a lot of time…’ But I disagree. For a student who is willing to think about their word and really mentally consider the scope of the lexis, the context, the power of the word itself, the possibilities are endless.
But therein lies the rub.
Willing. Think. Scope. Context. These are all notions that are simply falling out of favor and no longer seen as important or relevant. And by important and relevant I mean concretely profitable.
I (semi)respectfully disagree. The problem starts here: as David Brooks said in his June 7th editorial for the NY Times, “When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead to a job.” This has been tragically demonstrated by the cuts in secondary schools (bye bye music, art, libraries, sports, journalism, media arts), curriculum changes (adios Thomas Jefferson and welcome back Joe McCarthy!) and the freakish obsession with finance and accounting degrees and MBAs in recent history. I have good, smart kids now in their first one or two years in “good, smart” universities who bitch incessantly about why they have to take any sort of humanities class when they are an accounting major, a business student, a future engineer. And of course I have myriad answers to these questions that sound like fingernails on chalkboards every time I hear them (an analogy I cannot even use because none of my students have ever been in a classroom that had a chalkboard.) These same “good, smart” kids don’t know how to read and write. And I would say that is as good a reason as any to advocate for humanities education, as David Brooks eloquently does in his op-ed piece.
Can’t read and write? Impossible you say? Well, they can read the words that are on a page, likely just about any given page. But I can read the words printed in a Portuguese language novel and in the end it does not mean shit to me. Hell, I can even read Greek after making it through the American collegiate system replete with fraternities and sororities (though six weeks in Greece was more effective). The point is, it doesn’t mean I understand what I am reading. We stopped teaching kids how to read at some point. I think it is because it seemed insulting, or like self-esteem damaging to really explain how to be effective, critical, engaged readers. Efforts to do so being interpreted as an attack on student ability when we really wanted to make people feel good and be like, “Oh my gosh, Joey! You are SUCH a good reader! Gold star for YOU!”
The long-term effect of this was kids stopped being interested in reading. Which is logical because if you don’t get all the cool shit there is to get in a book, it is probably a lot less interesting. Plus, Saved by the Bell ends in 30 minutes, with commercials, but it takes, like, ages to read a book… And then when people stopped reading guess what happened to their ability to write? Yeah. It tanked. Again, my students can physically write – in Hong Kong often in several languages – but they do not like to write and do not see much value in it beyond getting the necessary grades for Wharton, Haas, Tepper, Sloan or Ross. And it shows. There are varied masking strategies to obscure these deficiencies: saturating an essay with SAT-approved vocabulary words (generally coupled with a painful abundance of “transition” words), extensive use of quotations and footnotes, and the good-old reliable circular logic.
So where do we end up from here? I would predict we end up with a whole bunch of engineers, accountants, financial (what? advisors? I don’t even know what to put there anymore) and even scientists who cannot communicate effectively and even more tragically don’t understand their deficiencies because they have no schema to intuit context or subtlety in meaningful ways. We get hordes of International Baccalaureate candidates who abhor the idea of discussing and writing about the Theory of Knowledge, one of the potentially coolest subjects in the curriculum. This is what Brooks is talking about when he says that people need to get in touch with The Big Shaggy and that to do this you need to study the humanities.
Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.
Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.
Though he got ribbed pretty harshly for the concept, Brooks describes The Big Shaggy thusly: “down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.” And this is it. This is what distinguishes the superlatives from the masses. The concept is totally perplexing to lots of people because it is unquantifiable, but I have always been a fan of qualitative analysis, so I may be projecting. When I completed my graduate thesis focusing on a landscape analysis of Area 51 and the effect of its existence on various aspects of our culture and society, one of my fellow Geography MS candidates said, “Yeah, but what did you count?” And he was being totally serious in his dendrochronlogical way.
It could be argued that I have a vested interest in Brooks’ point of view, I am, after all, a humanities teacher. But I think it goes beyond my personal livelihood, or I hope it does. I would like to look forward to a generation of financiers who embrace social responsibility and understand the long-term effects of their immediate actions (Goldman et al, I am talking to you.) I would like to see engineers who appreciate the aesthetic with the function (good-bye urban housing “estates” <– projects) and the effects of improvements in these areas are as of yet unknown. I can only imagine that a kid living in a hip urban setting is going to be generally more motivated than my basketball players who I used to drive home from Balboa High School to the projects in Double Rock. I want law enforcement officers and lawyers and politicians who see the correlations and connections between media-promoted fear and social violence. I would like to see business leaders who understand that even though our cultural baggage influences us in both positive and negative ways, its presence is real and the acknowledgement of it is useful in unquantifiable ways.
Of course, I could just be taken as another liberal ranting for education spending who will be met with a chorus of voices that extol the dangers of inherently liberal education and the lack of morality perpetuated by the [Constitutionally guaranteed] separation of church and state while being reminded that evolution is only a theory as equally nebulous creationism. I won’t cry about it, but I certainly will be interested to see what kind of answers I get when I lay that one-word essay on my kids next year. You guys don’t need “education? Cool. I say step up and show me what you can make out of the word “Humanity” in the next three hours.
And if you need a little more of a reminder consider Brooks closing remarks:
…Over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.
It’s time to reconsider what we are doing, why we are doing it and what it all means. That is the humanities and that is what “The Essay” wanted people to demonstrate: understanding.