In a New York Times opinion piece titled “The Soul-Crushing Student Essay”, Scott Korb, the director of first-year writing at the New School, bemoans student essays that many college professors are familiar with: convoluted prose that seems written by machines, not people.
Korb concludes that students write these “soulless” essays because they have lost touch with themselves on the page. They divorce their writing from the “peculiar” inner eye that sees awe in everyday life. The telltale sign of this, for Korb, is the omission of the “I” from their writing. They’re more likely to write “life was lived” rather than “I lived life.”
When I first read Korb’s essay, I felt acknowledged. My crushed soul felt less crushed.
Like Korb, I have taught college writing for the past decade. I’ve slogged through thousands of essays, many of which lacked a human center. Like him, I’ve experienced those cricket moments when I shared prose that had soul, only to get blank stares in return.
But Korb’s essay didn’t sit right.
I realized why when I scanned his essay with an eye for grammar. I looked over his subjects, those persons or things that do the action in the sentences. I noticed he had omitted an important one: The subject that led students to write these soul-crushing essays.
To be fair, Korb does point to one subject that may be responsible. He mentions teachers who told students to separate the “I” from what they wrote on the page.
But are teachers the main subject behind students’ soul-crushing essays, or are teachers yet another object being acted upon?
I’d say it’s the latter. I’d also say it’s time we start naming the subject that is acting upon teachers and students. It’s time we name the subject that really produces soul-crushing essays.
* * *
You might say it’s impossible to name the subject who leads to soul-crushing essays. The issue is too complex. It’s futile to point fingers, so better to leave that subject unnamed, especially in a short op-ed. My students say similar things when they analyze topics like climate change or our industrial food system. I tell them they can, indeed, point fingers at the responsible subject or subjects. I assure them they can do so in under five pages.
To demonstrate this, I read my students the following passage:
“The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.”
In his simple yet profound way, Dr. King names the subject that is missing from Korb’s analysis: A thing-oriented society.
A thing-oriented society leads students to write soul-crushing essays.
I can see a writing teacher marking up my previous sentence. “Too abstract. Add specificity.”
So let me add specificity by pointing a finger where my experience tells me to point it.
I point toward thing-oriented politicians who put corporate persons above young people, financial futures above student futures, and militarism above education.
I point toward thing-oriented corporations that bankrolled these politicians.
I point toward thing-oriented policy-makers who built a public K-12 system that gives some students the data and resources they need to succeed in the market, while leaving others with old textbooks, burnt out teachers, and devalued knowledge.
I point toward thing-oriented companies that create tests designed to reward by-the-book knowledge and test-taking ability rather than wisdom, virtue, and struggle.
I point toward a thing-oriented President who, in passing No Child Left Behind, forced teachers to teach for those standardized tests.
I point toward a thing-oriented Secretary of Education who advocates for charter schools while rescinding protections for the most marginalized students.
I point toward thing-oriented companies who treat international students as cash flows and local, working class students as factors blocking that flow.
I point toward thing-oriented school boards who cut Arts and Humanities programs that would give STEM students the poetry needed to see the cosmos and the wisdom to build a sustainable home within it.
* * *
It’s no wonder, then, that my students struggle to look me in the eye. It’s no wonder that they struggle to use “I” in their writing. They were born into a thing-oriented society that privileged passive observers. They were born into a society that didn’t leave room for the soul.
Don’t worry, society tells them. You don’t need a soul. You just need the right data—the numbers, not the experiences; the knowledge, not the wisdom. Accumulate those data points and you’ll get by. You’ll succeed.
This is a myth.
To see how that myth falls apart, I point toward the thing-oriented bureaucrats who have turned the public university into a privatized corporation.
I know. This isn’t a unique claim. Five decades ago, during Berkeley’s Free Speech movement, Mario Savio and Students for a Democratic Society showed us that universities were knowledge factories and students were raw materials.
But the public university isn’t the same factory decried by the New Left. To keep pace with the global economy, it has become more efficient and, in its efficiency, more furtively classist, more cunningly racist, more morally bankrupt than ever.
In this factory, students are treated as data-sets to be read and manipulated by people who never studied education. These administrators, and their consultants, look into the data pool and see profits. They direct this data so that the university can produce more award-winning scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, so that it can rank #1 in U.S. News and World Reports.
When students are treated as data, their whole history is reduced to numbers. Algorithms determine their paths. If their numbers don’t add up, they are directed away from the most competitive majors. That’s why, at a place like the University of California at San Diego where I teach, you find a lot of Communication and Economics majors who “chose” these majors because they couldn’t get into Engineering or Computer Science. That’s why, at UCSD, you see working class students transferring to less-competitive UC campuses so they can major in their desired fields. Why? Because they didn’t fit into the algorithm. They didn’t compute.
It’s easy to point the finger at students. I’ve seen a professor do just that. He berated a lecture hall of students, called them narcissists, because they didn’t react to his slick presentation with the emotion he expected.
What that professor missed, what Scott Korb misses, is the fact that a thing-oriented society has torn students from their bodies and their experiences. Forget being a “peculiar” I. Our society hasn’t allowed them to be. It has, instead, created the conditions for numb detachment. Treat them like things and they become things.
* * *
After I read King’s quote, I ask students to share their thoughts. “Do you think our society is more thing-oriented or person-oriented?”
Then, a student from the working class part of San Diego fidgets in his seat. I call on him.
“Thing-oriented, for sure. Look at all the gadgets we use. We barely talk to each other.”
The other students perk up.
I end class by telling them to use Dr. King’s words as a moral compass. Use it to find direction, I tell them. The world is filled with so much spin, so much dogma.
I don’t know if any of it sticks.
What I do know is that, like King, they’re using “We” in their essays. When they write about the problems in the food industry, for example, they write sentences like, “We need to find solutions to the obesity epidemic.”
In conferences, I ask them to define that “We.”
Some say government. Some say companies. Some say the people.
I didn’t tell my students then, but I’ll tell them now.
You missed one thing.
You are the “We.”
You are more than data, more than the what the banner-ads say you should be, more than what the algorithms get you to be. You are people. The others sitting around you and out of sight: they are people too. Find one another, form connections, shift society back to the people.
You’ll find something beyond your individual peculiarities in these efforts.
You’ll recover our soul.
Niall Twohig has a Ph.D. in Literature from UC San Diego. He teaches in the Analytical Writing Program at UCSD.
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