Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comp 101

In high school composition classes, and later in freshman college English courses, students learn to write themes. This is the derivation of the word “theme-book.” The idea is to present a cohesive essay in which a lead paragraph or sentence sets out a proposition. It’s much like proving a theorem in geometry, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the notion of tautology in linguistics, where statements like “the red chair is red” are examples of a priori analytic knowledge—in lay terms, self-evident iterations that don’t advance our knowledge of reality. The idea of the freshman comp essay is a little more sophisticated. A rather obvious proposition that doesn’t need proving is made, such as “All men are dogs.” Supporting evidence is provided, such as “Jack is a man,” with a concluding paragraph, which in some distended way dramatizes that, yes, Jack is a dog who wants to fuck every Jill in sight. Students are thereby graduated with honors in impoverished ways of thinking and then go on to contaminate the discourse that occurs in the course of human life. This contamination of language and thinking is no mean feat. People who make inanely self-evident statements that they go on to embellish is the second leading cause of heart disease in the United States after trans fats. Not only does college encourage us to make nonsensical statements that demonstrate a complete absence of intuition and metaphysics (apologies are here rendered to A.J. Ayer, the famous philosopher and author of Language, Truth, and Logic, whose thinking has had such a deleterious effect on human thought), it encourages the life-defeating proposition that one idea should follow from the next. A new era of writing instruction must begin in which students are taught the value of the non sequitur, where unproven statements are enthusiastically encouraged, and where students are taught to stop embellishing a point ad nauseum (yes we got the idea, you don’t have to wrap it up with a bow!), and are instead shown the value of moving on to fresh ideas both in writing and in life.

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