My beliefs developed in high school, chiefly because of English class.
I liked some of the books we studied. I enjoyed writing stories. But I hated
writing essays, and not just because I was bad at it.
The topics were dull. Certainly, aspects of other classes were dull. Who wants
to memorize a list of foreign words, or the names of particular molecules? But
why was English dull? I loved stories as much as everyone else. Outside school,
I read many books, watched even more movies, and discussed them with friends.
How did our teachers manage to ask the most uninteresting questions about them?
Moreover, I found their lack of logic disturbing. We were told there was no
right or wrong answer. There were only equally valid alternative viewpoints,
yet somehow some viewpoints were more valid than others. Discussions often
seemed contrived, involving far-fetched speculations about the author’s
mindset, or turned likely coincidence into unlikely evidence.
But more disturbing was the lack of logic with respect to grading. I expended
minimal effort in my essays. Sometimes I was justly dealt a harsh score. Other
times I was mysteriously awarded full points.
A couple of mischievous friends once wrote the same essay, word for word.
Not only did the teacher overlook the duplication, but the two essays received
markedly different marks. (Funnily enough, one of these friends now teaches
high school English!)
My attitudes hardened within a few years. I was especially bitter after I heard
that neat handwriting scored better. Not only was I personally penalized, as my
penmanship is particularly poor under pressure, but my younger idealistic self
took offence at the mere suggestion that presentation could affect one’s
I found comfort in classes where truth and falsehood were clearly defined.
Sure, there was controversy over partial credit, but I was a perfectionist;
the fair cost of some error or other was a minor matter.
Two plus two makes four. Acid plus base makes water plus a salt. Amo amas amat
amamus amatis amant. It didn’t matter how atrocious my handwriting was,
provided it was legible. I couldn’t use specious arguments to seduce the reader,
nor bury ignorance with vocabulary.
Much later, I realized I had missed the real message. In some settings, such
as politics or fraud (a cynic might equate these), one gains confidence
through fiery rhetoric rather than sound reasoning. Presentation trumps
content. There may be right and wrong, but such absolutes are irrelevant; what
matters is what I can convince you to do.
Writing is indubitably indispensable and immensely rewarding. But why use essays
to measure competence in a field besides essay-writing? Why judge using
instruments designed to cloud judgement?