There be dragons!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Letter from a student

Hello, sir,

I hope things are going well with the new school year. I am very busy, but also very happy here at college.
While enrolling for classes, I decided to sign-up for an English composition class. It's my favorite one so far.
There are only about 18 kids in the class. Last week we got broken into small "peer-review" groups to help with edits for our first paper. I just got through my edits for both of the students in my group. After having read them, I feel it necessary to say thank you for your help with my writing over the years.
Attached is the BETTER of the two essays I had to critique; I think you may find it interesting (if not entertaining) to read.
Good luck with the rest of the school year, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks so much for the email. Great to hear from you.

That essay - sad. Sad to me that so much earnest goodwill in that writer seems to have been so squandered by an educational establishment incapable of proposing anything greater than feelings and unable to suggest any heroes besides Abe Lincoln and MLK. The lines that hit me the most were these:

But I don’t believe that my life has a plan or anyone’s life has some plan that it must stick to. In essence things do happen for a reason, but no one really knows what that reason is. So living, dying, is the best we can do and making ourselves happy within being born and dying leaves no room to ask these questions.

That this writer doesn't see any "plan" to life is a travesty. But not seeing a plan seems obvious by his style of writing. Seeing a plan, seeing order in the universe is a delight, but it is a task - not an easy thing to do, that. I think the natural tendency of most humans is to see only the darkness. If, then, we are to engage in that arduous climb out of the darkness to see the light we have to apply ourselves to the equally difficult task of learning the forms, the orders, the proper grammar and syntax of hope.

Language is a big part of this and when I was teaching you to write I was only secondarily concerned with your grade or your being able to compose a good college essay, or being able to critique the unfortunate work of another individual. What I was mostly concerned in, and still am, was not so much the success of my students but their acquisition of the ability to see the light. I think that training students to compose accurate, meticulously spelled and rewritten essays following an ordered format is as integral a part of this overall process as is learning philosophy or theology. What do we have to hold ourselves to if not the rigorous exactitude of language and the ideas which that language conveys? If we call God "Abba" it is a very different thing than calling him "Moloch" - our belief will follow our language. Without such rigor we can't really engage in that strenuous activity of seeing "the plan" and thus being happy. Then all we're left with is living, eating, sexing, crapping, drinking, despairing, dying - it's the "best we can do" (and Cancun spring break becomes the New Jerusalem).

I'm glad to have helped you get out of the cave.

Now go back into it with mercy and happiness.


  1. I critiqued a paper not much different... in it, the writer was comparing the lack of supposed direction in Chaucer's fantastic Wife of Bath character with the overall lack of meaning and direction in mankind as a whole. I wasn't really sure where to begin my edit :)

  2. You think that's bad? You should pick up a "Minnesota Daily."

    Worst. Newspaper. Ever.