Friday, November 04, 2005


Today I had what is probably my most disheartening experience in the nascent stages of my work as a college English professor. One of the books we're reading for class is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Yep, the whole thing. Anyway, I asked my students to write a formal paper relating an aspect of this text to their personal life experiences or to something else they've read or seen, etc. The basic premise of my instructions were to "make it real" in some fashion. By and large, the first round of papers were rough but fairly impressive. Revisions are a required aspect of the course (it's titled "critical reading and writing"), and so I provide feedback and so forth, you know the drill.

One of my students wrote a very negative critique of Zinn's chapter titled "The Coming Revolt of the Guards," wherein Zinn presents his admittedly-utopian vision for the United States after a peaceful revolution (he intentionally puts pure realism aside, prefacing his vision with "let us be utopian for a moment so that when we get realistic again it is not that 'realism' anchored to a certain kind of history empty of surprise. Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all."). If you haven't read A.P.H. you should; if nothing else find a copy in a bookstore and spend 15 minutes reading chapter 23.

Back to my student's critique. His efforts were focused heavily on saying that Zinn is not only being unrealistic, but that he's flat-out wrong. My student claimed that equality can never exist and that American capitalism is as good as it gets, saying that we live in a violent world and any claim that a people's movement will change that is laughable.

After the first draft, I pressed him on his claim that "most people have it pretty good," because it was clear to me that his definition of "most people" did not correlate with Zinn's definition of "most people," and that my student was ignoring the plight of the lower class and underprivileged groups in his analysis. He turned in a revision that continued to tiptoe around the real assumptions he was making.

I wrote to him--and this is probably the result of poor teaching on my part, I'm still learning how to do this effectively--that he wasn't countering Zinn's logic directly because he was comparing apples to oranges. The only way his argument "works," in my opinion, is if he has some fundamental belief that economically underprivileged individuals are basically evil. If that were the case, as he implies, then he'd be right-- equality couldn't exist, and even if economic equality were achieved, violence would continue to plague our society. So I decided to test him. I told him that if he typed out the following paragraph with his signature and date at the bottom and turned it in, I would award him a perfect score on this draft of his essay (he was in the "C" range under my rubric):

"I, [name], believe Zinn is wrong because socially and/or economically underprivileged individuals are inherently evil; that true freedom, justice, and equality can never exist because the world is a dark and violent place; and that those who bear the burden so that the upper class can exist deserve their fate."

I gave him this option knowing that his beliefs in Christianity play a strong influence in his life (his other papers and comments in class point to this fact) and I assumed that laying it out on the table like this would spur him to see the significance of his implications. Well, you can guess what happened: I now have a student who signed and dated this declaration of his lack of faith in humanity in order to buy a grade on an English paper.

I don't know if I did the right thing; I don't think he really believes this... you'd have to guess that he had some sort of internal debate when typing it out on the computer and signing the sheet, right? Would any of you sign such a declaration if it went against your beliefs to boost your score on a paper?

It's fairly clear that he didn't have a problem signing the sheet. If he doesn't believe what he signed, he doesn't view his education as more than a means to an end (degree and job). If he does actually believe those claims, I'm even more frightened.