Stories, Learning & Place

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thoughts on getting home from scoring 2000 essays
   Musing on MUS (Montana University System) Writing Assessment

A writer should be of as great probity and honesty as a priest of God. He is either honest or not, as a woman is either chaste or not, and after one piece of dishonest writing he is never the same again.

Ernest Hemingway


Giambattista Vico

What are we teaching our kids? I wondered driving home from Missoula, where with about eighty other teachers I helped score 2,000 or so of the 7,000 essays juniors wrote as part our state’s writing assessment. When I got home, I turned to old books, where I often go when my sense of reality goes dim from too much devotion to the hurly burly of school.

Giambattista Vico, I read, claimed that the aim of education should be to achieve a heroic mind. A hero is one forever seeking the sublime.

He knew something of the eros of learning. Maybe he was thinking about Plato’s Cratylus and the claim that “hero” (heros) derives from love (eros), a desire to be completed that can link us to the divine. “Make your way,” Vico continues, “. . .through all three worlds, of things human, things natural, and things eternal.” He intimates that someone rapt in a long moment of learning can reach, in his yearning to be whole, the creator.

One with a heroic mind will strive to be eloquent. Through eloquence the learner avoids being alone in wisdom, which would be to fall into foolishness. Wisdom requires eloquence—and “eloquence is none other than wisdom speaking.” It is the binding together of heart and tongue, and its work is to draw us into each other.

Vico’s was a high pedagogy, suggesting that the best writing is a transcript of the good heart seeking to perfect itself. We could, if we had the desire, discuss how to teach rhetoric in his tradition—in the tradition of Cicero, Horace and Quintilian.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

For myself, I have settled, these past few weeks, for teaching young citizens to write 40-minute “essays” in response to fake questions about which they know little and care less. Should the principal enforce the dress code or require school uniforms? Should the voting age be lowered to sixteen? Should we offer online classes or a tutoring center?

During this time, they weren’t asked whether it is better to deceive or to be deceived. Nor, I think, did they wonder whether more can be learned from winter or from spring, or ponder what question it might be that a columbine has answered.

Unsurprisingly, the missives they produce are utter mundanity. They are dull, with little in the way of meaning or purpose (beyond self advancement) and, only occasionally, faint and forlorn reminders of young hearts’ thwarted capacity for the sublime.

The diligent students brainstorm, outline, then write rapidly. Each essay is scored by two separate readers using a rubric that does not mention truth and if their scores vary by more than one digit it is read a third time by a resolver. Reduced to a single digit from 0 to 6, the writing is thrown away. The digit is assigned to the student’s name.

At the gathering of teachers to score these glib offerings, a professor congratulates us for our complicity, tells us that such writing is the power writing of our age. And this is true. Those who do such writing well may get into prestigious universities and then into prestigious jobs. They may become our leaders, and it is common for such leaders to offer glibness instead of eloquence and cant instead of wisdom. And it is common for us to settle for it.

For some, though not for all, these are the dark ages.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

America would be a brighter place if all high school students were writing Heritage Essays and reading them to local audiences.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/15 at 09:13 PM
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©2008 Michael L. Umphrey
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