Everett Pelzman, ’15
For the past few weeks in two sections of Year 2 Seminar, Professor Cho has spent ten to fifteen minutes “mining” our experiences at BHSEC. Although it took a few weeks at the beginning of the semester to understand what Professor Cho means by “moves” and “vibrations,” mining is, at least in comparison, self-explanatory. He has probed us on the valuable experiences, influential moments, and turning points that have collectively shaped our experiences here.
After each conversation, Professor Cho thanks us for the opportunity to hear our reflections, and we shift back to writing our inquiry projects. He tells us that the mining will inform the structure of a program he is designing for incoming freshmen over the summer. While I hope our insights do prove valuable for this particular purpose, I also imagine that Professor Cho collects them every year to inform his understanding of how well BHSEC fulfills its mission. We are, after all, still an experiment, a model for early colleges nationwide.
In the spirit of maintaining that experimental mentality, I thought I would share some reflections of my own. As an unlicensed miner, I will concede that my inspiration for drilling was not unprompted reflection, but rather a comment made by a peer during one of Professor Cho’s sessions. In discussing how our paper-writing skills have evolved over the past four years, Max Jenkins-Goetz (Y2) remarked that he rarely ever trusts what his friends have to say in their essays. His aside was remarkably revealing for an academic institution that prides itself in and strives to create – quite successfully – a semblance of integrity. His observation, of course, does not concern outright fraud or blatant misattribution, but rather a kind of misrepresentation and self-deceptiveness.
Most, if not all of us, have perfected the art – or science – of the five-page paper by our senior years. We identify a guiding idea, collect and compartmentalize evidence, fashion an introduction that serves as a microcosm for our argument, churn out body paragraphs that begin and end in the same place though apparently build off of each other sequentially, and then tie up our loose ends by asking, “so what?” (If you haven’t written this paper yet, you’re either leaps and bounds beyond the rest of us, or should be working on your next literature assignment instead of aimlessly flipping through the Bardvark.) We’ve become paper generators. In many ways, everything we’ll ever write in an institutional setting will be generated. Even Malcolm Gladwell’s style can be reduced to a paper generator – check out MalcolmGladwellBookGenerator.com (ex. Slurp: What Kittens’ Tongues Teach Us About Derivatives, and The Snipping Point: Why the 8th Day of Joshua’s Life will Really, Really Suck). The process of crafting a five-page paper may prepare us for a plethora of varied styles we will encounter in the future.
However, as I believe Max was alluding to, in writing these papers, we often allow our ideas and the arguments we have in mind to drag us along a logically reasonable, geometric path that results in a message which lacks any similarities to our true relationship and opinions on the text or issue at hand.
Have you ever written the conclusion to a paper with a flourish, only to take a step back and realize that, after zeroing in on a particular theme or dimension, you fundamentally disagree with your thesis and its implications? Have you ever responded, “It’s complicated,” when asked what your argument is?
Do these argumentative skills, with which we often deceive ourselves, allow us to contribute to conversations, or do they obstruct an honest translation of self, however un-postmodern that sounds? How can we learn not to argue ourselves into an inauthentic oblivion, but to employ our skills in the advancement of our own voices?
On the School Leadership Team this year, we considered, among others, a Comprehensive Education Plan proposal that would set “Verbal Literacy” standards for the school. This proposal was first introduced by Dr. Matthews. The faculty members on this year’s committee were mystified, arguing that BHSEC’s educational philosophy revolves around verbal literacy. In other words, why would we divert additional resources to an area in which our student body already excels? Dr. Matthews was on leave at Duke University, and thus unable to defend the “Verbal Literacy” standards. Having spent two years in SLT with Dr. Matthews, I can only presume that one of his intentions was to close the gap between our positive reasoning skills and the genuine opinions, beliefs, values, and impressions we each bring to the table.
I’ve even encountered this gap in the publication of the paper you are reading. Our Op-Eds are as few in number as ever, and those articles that project themselves as opinion pieces, readers of the Bardvark will confirm, are often the most awkward and disjointed of the bunch (such as this one). BHSEC students often describe themselves as opinionated. Where, along the way, have we lost the ability to express those opinions with the same skills we have developed during four years in literature and seminar? Why do the first three days of the year – Writing and Thinking – regularly seem incongruous with the following nine months of writing and thinking? What are the consequences of such a disconnect?
At the very least, it hinders our ability to debate and defend the arguments we entertain in these most elementary of scholarly pursuits. Writing for school has become, at least in some cases, a mere exercise in the futile exchange of arguments woven for the sake of themselves, rather than for the sake of understanding, complication, or nuance. Without the investment that necessarily accompanies those ideas we willingly expose ourselves to defend, how can we expect each other, let alone ourselves, to exert ourselves – exhaust ourselves – in the name of a liberal education? The projection of our own thoughts ought to make us feel vulnerable. The structure and spirit behind much of the formal writing at BHSEC serves not to expose us to the critiques of others, but to systematically protect us from such exposure and vulnerability.
I can attest to stumbling across this issue in my own writing. In an effort to demonstrate the work I have put into grappling with literature, history, or even this final inquiry project, I find myself purposefully sacrificing my own voice for the sake of a novel argument. Many professors might actually encourage the suspension of your own perspective in academic writing, and perhaps I have projected a conundrum onto a population of six-hundred students that only a few would seriously sweat over. I would contend, however, that stripping students of perspective creates another dilemma by idealizing the capacity of the reader. As readers, of fiction, current events, or Sparknotes, our eyes ultimately look down upon a text at an infinite array of angles. Most paradoxically, this last point has been repeatedly asserted in the same academic atmosphere that still manage to prize, above all else, the theses that originate in the text, mindlessly follow the text, and introduce intricate, multi-dimensional arguments that rarely accelerate conversation or substantially supplement understanding. Yet again, these faults are my own just as much as they are others’. Can we strike a balance between carefully-crafted, evenly-spaced, architecturally-sound arguments, and those that we could comfortably call our own?
We can fault nobody in particular for fostering this unbalanced state. Both faculty and students participate and perpetuate the present dynamic. Moreover, we may inadvertently reverse the order before finding equilibrium. In certain settings, such as Y2 seminar discussions, opinions occasionally translate into regrettable musings on personal lives or contemporary politics. Freudian readings of your love lives rarely enrich analysis. Speaking to my peers and teachers about this topic, I’ve repeatedly heard the same complaint: opinions are empty, fruitless, and abundant, and to a certain extent I agree. Teachers are tired of hearing your opinions. The “I say” component of the “They Say, I Say” framework that the humanities departments have begun to emphasize recently involves an opinion. Most importantly, expressing this kind of opinion is not the same as imposing your personal life onto a text.
BHSEC classes – most of them – have been transformative, enlightening experiences for the majority of us, myself included. These past four years have been immensely rewarding, time and time again demonstrating the inherent value in a liberal arts education. Many more pressing problems justifiably call our attention away from such an abstract one as this. These cluttered reflections were meant to be read not as biting criticisms, but ultimately as a few among many takeaways for the 154 of us graduating in a month. We all walked into our Writing and Thinking sessions in September of 2011 with different inspirations and guiding, however undeveloped, worldviews. Four years down the road, we have an opportunity to reconnect with those passions. Five-page, systematically designed papers won’t help, and neither, as much as we who keep journals would like to think, will the unanchored thought-trains of our diary entries. For some of us, these inquiry projects have confirmed the existence of a long-lost, largely-unexplored, enriching middle ground.
Most of us realized long ago that our scores on Regents Exams do not reflect the essence of our BHSEC education. I would also posit that intellectual discipline, refined expression, and critical thinking, while all central, do not encapsulate the value of this experience. On the contrary, education, and this education in particular, forms our individual conceptions of the world around us and where we stand in it. We have each, of course, grown individually; personal development, however, naturally revolves around others. We can only ascertain our own position – perch, perspective, philosophy, whatever you’d like to call it – after we begin to gauge the diversity and subtle variations in the perspectives of those around us.
BHSEC is a platform for constructing such conceptions, but it can become an engine when, and only when, we learn to catalyze our academic voices into the elevation of our own.