First of all, for those of you interested in our recent conversation on gender, check out Martha Nussbaum’s review of Harvey Mansfield’s ridiculous book Manliness. Nussbaum’s critique (this is being nice — it’s more like destruction than critique) of Mansfield is awesome. Has anyone read any of Nussbaum’s books? When I think of contemporary philosophy I’d like to read, I think of her. (Thanks to Jenny D. for the link.)
Then, there’s one thing I wanted to say about my current read, Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which, by the way, I’m enjoying quite a lot. I’m about one third of the way through and sometimes finding it difficult to put down. But after all the talk about teaching (see my previous post for links) and instilling a love of books in students, I was curious to come across a passage that took up the issue, not about exciting a love of reading in students exactly, but about getting students to write with passion. The main character, Lee Fiora, a high school sophomore, has a brand new 22-year-old English teacher who has the class read Whitman’s Song of Myself and then assigns the class an essay in which they are supposed to write 800 words on something that matters to them. They are supposed to take a stand on something. Lee has no idea what to write. Her roommate makes some suggestions — why not write about the death penalty? Abortion? Welfare?
My English-teacher self cringes at this because these topics are always what students turn to when they have no idea what to write. They are safe and expected; you can take a stand on them and no one will be surprised at what you say. Lee agonizes and finally writes her paper on prayer in schools (another safe and predictable choice), but adds a note to the teacher: “This is not an issue I truly care about, but I believe it fulfills the assignment.” This pisses the teacher off, who betrays her youth and inexperience by letting her anger show in class and attacking Lee afterward:
“There’s nothing you feel strongly about? Here you are, you’re going to this incredible school, being given every advantage, and you can’t think of anything that matters to you. What do you plan to do with yourself?”
This is what Lee thinks in response, although she doesn’t say this to the teacher:
And not feel strongly about things? I felt strongly about everything — not just my interactions with people, their posture or their inflections, but also the physical world, the smell of the wind, the overhead lights in the math wing, the precise volume of the radio in the bathroom if it was playing while I brushed my teeth. Everything in the world I liked or disliked, wanted more or less of, wanted to end or to continue. The fact that I had no opinion on, for instance, relations between the U.S. and China did not mean I didn’t feel things.
Lee is capable of writing a Whitmanesque essay on the things that matter to her, but she can’t figure out how to carry her preoccupation with the everyday details of life into a class assignment. In fact, the possibility of writing on something she knows about personally doesn’t even occur to her. If the assignment is to write on something she cares about, how can she have fulfilled the assignment, as her note claims, if she doesn’t care about the issue? But what she writes for class is supposed to matter, and what matters, in her own opinion, is not her life or her personal experience.
This is partly a problem with the teacher, who didn’t communicate to the class what she wanted, and partly a problem with being a high school sophomore — if there’s one thing Sittenfeld describes in great detail, it’s the way high school students will work incredibly hard to avoid taking risks and being vulnerable, especially in an essay for English class — but it’s sad that Lee keeps the rich world of her mind so closed off from everyone around her. It would be a true pedagogical triumph to get Lee to write an essay on something she cares about, on people or conversation or the physical world around her. She would write beautifully.