Quite possibly the greatest high school English paper of all time

It’s a paper about Walt Whitman and you must see it to believe it. It’s so obnoxious that it comes all the way around to being brilliant. It’s so good, in fact, that I suspect it might be a hoax. Years ago, in a previous lifetime, I had the very bad luck to be teaching Whitman to undergraduates at the University of Toledo, in Ohio. Their reaction to Walt was pretty much the same as the one expressed in the high school paper above, though not as clever. One guy got hung up on the notion that Whitman was gay, and therefore refused to discuss the work and made a point of asking me, at the end of class, whether he needed to keep the poems for any reason, and when I told him no, he made a big point of tossing the poems into the trash in front of me. That was depressing enough, but the truly depressing part wasn’t that my “students” (I use the term very loosely) didn’t appreciate Whitman. The truly depressing part was that many of them, nearly all of them, could not comprehend Whitman. And I don’t mean they didn’t understand the imagery. I mean they could not read the sentences and parse them for meaning. They could not understand, from line to line, what was going on in a poem. These students had graduated from high school and were attending university. It was terrifying. Worse yet, they were obstinate about their ignorance, determined to cling to it, resistant to any attempts to help them understand how to read sentences in their own native language. In short, they liked being ignorant. They were proud of it. Ever since then, whenever I hear people talk about “making college education available to everyone,” I cringe. By the time I got to Toledo I’d been teaching for a few years, as an adjunct lecturer, mostly at University of Michigan. Every year I would schlep to the MLA and interview for full-time jobs. But then I took that  one-semester gig at Toledo, and when it was over, I never taught again. Ever.

42 Responses to “Quite possibly the greatest high school English paper of all time”

  1. David Barnes

    I don’t know much about Walt Whitman but I do know that providing free full time arts education to anybody over 18 who doesn’t yearn for it with every fibre of their being is stupid. Get these people working.

    I have heard rumours that it is possible to mess about reading books even if you don’t go to university, and you can choose whatever books you want. They don’t have to be written by fags.

    Reply
  2. 名無しさん

    As someone who misguidedly ended up with an English degree, I can relate to the sentiment (though I think it’s probably a hoax).

    The fact is that a great deal of what is considered great works of English by academics come off as deliberately obtuse or irrelevant to most others. In some cases (Shakespeare) the language is just archaic; in the case of much poetry, including Whitman, it may be evocative, but for people like me who think the main focus of any conversation should be to get to the point as quickly and clearly as possible, it’s frustrating having to decipher all that imagery. Then sometimes it’s just the nature of the content; I couldn’t stand Pride and Prejudice because it was just a bunch of rich society women clucking about relationships.

    So, sorry, but the great works of English really aren’t all that great to us normal folks.

    Reply
  3. Jamesllegade

    Don’t judge a liberal arts education by its failures.

    If it creates one artist out of someone who would have otherwise gone on to lead horrible life as a CPA or a insurance auditor then it is worth wasting millions of one hour units Peter Nguyen-style students time. What else would then be doing with that time? Tweeting their Facebook?

    Go back to teaching Dan, you are needed. (but keep up the blog)

    Namaste,

    -James L Legade

    Reply
  4. fluffy

    Considering that “please see me” note looks like it was drawn with a mouse in MS Paint (and the rest of the paper looks like it was written with the text tool in MS Paint), I’m pretty sure it’s intended as a joke (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “hoax”).

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  5. Mike Cane

    >>>Worse yet, they were obstinate about their ignorance, determined to cling to it, resistant to any attempts to help them understand how to read sentences in their own native language.

    Wow. Explains too many blog Comments these days!

    Maybe Obama needs to fund English As A Last Resort Language?

    Reply
  6. llabesab

    Proves the truth of the research which shows that the average Elementary/Secondary School teacher in the USA graduates in the bottom third of the college class, albeit 31 points higher than the average Congressman. With teachers such as these, it’s no wonder that College Students not only do not appreciate Walt Whitman, but also can not read him. I grew up in Huntington, Long Island, about 100 yards from Walt Whitman’s birthplace. I was “raised” on Whitman. If you don’t appreciate Whitman, you “ain’t” no student.

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  7. Clayton

    llabesab, if Aaron Ortiz would have it his way, we wouldn’t need to understand Whitman because Whitman didn’t write technical manuals. Sigh.

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  8. Will The Real Lastangelman Please Stand Up?

    Ah, the eighties, when people started the Republican trend of bein’ proud of their ignorance. Many wore it like fuckin’ badge of honor, right down the freakin’ Gordon Gecko halls of finance to the gravel roads of Victoria, Texas, draggin’ sum poor sumbich negra’ behind their F-250. Yeah, ignorance, it did mighty fine fuh us in de past eight years, who’s your Messiah now, dumbfucks?

    Reply
  9. sneakerologist

    Haha, joke or not, that paper is brilliant.
    Peter wrote down everything he knew about English in that one paper;absolutely nothing.
    I am impressed by the fact that he referred to Huck Finn.

    Reply
  10. Teach

    I think it’s sad that you would never teach again because of the reaction your students had. When I went to college I took it seriously. What if there was one kid in whose life you could make a difference? Would it matter then?

    Reply
  11. biff

    Well, whoever wrote the paper is certainly not stupid. I’d call it a hoax, or at least a joke. “Real” student papers are almost always filled with grammatical, spelling, and / or stylistic glitches (having just graded twenty-five from college sophomores and juniors, I speak from recent experience). Except for the non sequitar content, this one is almost error free (almost).

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  12. Mr. Nobody

    Honestly, I would like to believe that this is a hoax or cleverly worded joke, however, having seen the general lack of reading and writing skills in the adults I teach it is possible that this is not too far from the truth. I’ve personally witnessed the decline of intellect and the rise of technocrats. I refer to the new generation(s) of people who cannot sustain a simple conversation about anything other than what is happening on the Internet or to their favorite celebutard. Attempting to engage people in discussions on literature, history, or the sciences is futile. Far too many people see these things as irrelevant to their current existence. For example:

    “So, sorry, but the great works of English really aren’t all that great to us normal folks.”

    Sorry, but I had to comment on this as the absurdity of this viewpoint is frustratingly inaccurate. The author mistakenly believes his/her viewpoint represents all “normal folks.” It doesn’t. Endearing works like those from Whitman, Shakespeare, and Austen have a timeless quality to them that sustains them. Hence, the reason why they are still being taught so many years later. They are not “deliberately obtuse or irrelevant to most”……just to the author of this rather ignorant comment.

    Reply
  13. Ethus

    The paper is funny and I agree a joke which was quite enjoyable. I disagree wholeheartedly with anywone who feels as though being able to understand a “great poet” vs a “technical manual” is intrinically more valuable. The world needs all kinds of people to function with thier wide ranging areas of expertise or inclination. If you really are convinced that understanding poetry makes one more important than say a garbage collector, picture what it would be like if both of you quit your job for a month. Now to finish with another’s thoughts: “When a student fails, it is the fault of the student. When all students fail, it is the fault of the teacher.”

    Reply
  14. dvorak

    Pretty funny. The references to america as an “angry powerhouse,” “gothcakes” and livejournal mark this as a clever parody (and not one written in july 2000).

    Reply
  15. Sarah

    @ Ethus: “The world needs all kinds of people to function with thier wide ranging areas of expertise or inclination. If you really are convinced that understanding poetry makes one more important than say a garbage collector, picture what it would be like if both of you quit your job for a month.”

    Ironically, Plato felt the same way about the banausic technai as you do.

    Reply
  16. Rob

    It’s been 20 years since my college days, and probably that long since I last read Walt Whitman. Left him behind in college I did.

    Reply
  17. Used to teach too

    Education is, strangely enough, available to people who care to make time for it. I used to teach a class of second-year students and I know exactly what Dan is talking about here. Look, University is not mandatory. It costs money. Seats are hard. And there is a friggin schedule and homework you have to do.

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  18. Spencer

    This is why I don’t tell anyone (unless absolutely necessary) that I’m from Toledo. It’s embarrassing. “Armpit of the Midwest” doesn’t even begin to describe this hellhole full of crime and ignorance. I got the heck outta there as quickly as possible after finishing high school. Went to U of M then moved half way around the world.

    Reply
  19. Jana

    Having read many undergrad papers in my day, I’d say this is definitely a hoax (as was pointed out above, it’s too well-written).

    What mystifies me about teaching teens or undergrads these days is their utter lack of curiosity and imagination. They aren’t even _thinking_. They only want to know what they need to know for the exam. That’s what makes me discouraged.

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  20. Patricia Robinett

    i cannot discount the brilliance of the author of the paper. children are brilliant — when left to their own devices and not forced into molds. thanks to a few narcissistic teachers, i have to say that i was far more confident, creative and expressive before i went to school. as an ‘educatee’, i have determined that it is the purpose of ‘higher education’ to discourage, dissuade and deaden the passions of those who dare to love any subject. select a major in college and you will be sick of it by the time you’ve finished. go into medicine and you will hate patients. are teachers are taught to disrespect children? to see them as ignorant little lumps that need to be uniformly molded into productive, conforming citizens?

    i certainly have known teachers who feel threatened by students who dare to express creativity and excellence. they generalize, overlook, criticize, punish, humiliate and lump them all together in one tidy little dismissive sentence. they rarely actually see the student for the brilliant person he or she is. teachers who do, bring out the best in their students. in general, the purpose of school appears to be to kill curiosity and imagination and thinking. please don’t be part of that. open your eyes and see the beauty and brilliance of every student. you can be the one who makes the difference. but then — that would require you to think, to be curious, imaginative, creative — are you up to it?

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  21. misainzig

    This paper is genius. As much fun as it would be, I could never get away with writing a paper like this.

    Hails to Peter Nguyen, as he is an all-around badass!

    Reply
  22. gangbox

    Dan,

    Maybe if you worked off of modern texts, written in contemporary American English, by authors who talked about themes that were actually relevant to the lives of today’s students, they would care.

    But reading badly written works by guys who died a long time ago, talking about things that are meaningless to contemporary Americans, is pretty much a guarantee that you will fail and your students will not give a damn about literature.

    Remember, most people go to college because they need a particular degree to get a job 4 years from now – passing your class is a means to that end.

    Reply
  23. Nicole

    There are so many things I want to say.

    Firstly, the paper is absolutely a joke. It’s been floating around the internet for some time and is featured on many websites. But even if it were truly handed in as an assignment of protest (and I’ve known students to do this) it still expresses a certain frustration with the study of the English language.

    As an English major I’m required to study ancient poetry and prose, old and middle English, the works of the great masters such as Shakespeare and Milton as well as Whitman and Dickenson.. and we also study poetry, prose and novels that have been written in the present day. An English degree requires that one study a wide breadth of literature.

    Most entry level courses start with what is considered the basics.. Whitman and company included. These are the courses that are often required of students in outside fields taking English requirements for degrees. I understand their frustration at taking these sorts of survey courses but I also understand that the reason they’re being asked to take them is the same reason I’m required to take a maths and sciences requirement to graduate from my University.

    A lot of the comments here sadden me… “badly written works by guys who died a long time ago” is exactly the reason that these sorts of works need to be considered more closely. However, there is a culture of ignorance brewing in America (I’m not an American) from what I’ve seen and being required to actually study and think about something that isn’t blatantly obvious is upsetting to students.

    I understand the frustration in being forced to take a class in something that you don’t find interesting or compelling if your temperament is better suited to something more “left brained” – maths, sciences.. or practical like business. But writing off an entire school of study as well as the deeper, investigative and nuanced thinking that is required to study the obscure wording of writers like Whitman is nothing short of supreme ignorance.

    Just because you personally don’t understand someone’s writing style, doesn’t mean that their work is lacking in value. It may mean that English is not your forte.

    We live in a world where everything must be instant, direct and simple. There is nothing wrong with this approach but we need to not loose our ability to view communication not just as a tool but as an art. If we do loose this sense of art and thoughtfulness in our communication and language then we are losing a part of our soul.

    Everyone should be given the opportunity to attend higher education, but I feel too much focus is placed on people obtaining lengthy degrees for even basic jobs. People shouldn’t be forced into universities and colleges and made to study things that they have no interest in. All that does is cheapen the experience and value of what’s being studied.

    Reply
  24. Nylund

    I teach on the math side of things, and believe me, you had it good. Kids today are even worse with the numbers than they are with the letters. Do you know how many college kids I’ve met that don’t even realize that 1/4, .25 and 25% are all the same thing? And I’m supposed to teach them calculus?

    Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You should have these down pat by the time you’re 9 and we’ve got 19 year olds who can’t do it.

    At first, I thought maybe they all just relied on calculators, but they can’t even do that. They always type something in wrong, get some crazy answer, raise their hand and say, “Professor, I think my calculator made a mistake.”

    Yes, it was the calculator that forgot how to add.

    Reply
  25. JoePeartree

    @Luke

    Wow! The Whitman paper reminded me of the same satirical “college entrance essay” that you linked to. I recall first reading it back in college about 20 years ago when a grad student instructor of mine taped it to his door, and have often thought about taking the time to find it again and re-read it.

    Thanks for the link. Of course, that made me want to find out a bit more about it, and a quick Google search found this followup on urbanlegends.com related to the essay:

    http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/blbyol3.htm

    Reply
  26. Anna

    At least Pete’s essay stands out as a fine example of witty creative writing. That young man is actually a talented writer. Maybe he exhibits distaste for literary criticism and academia, but a truly terrible writer wouldn’t have been able to craft something so purposefully humorous and well developed. America – the angry powerhouse! What a great line!

    Reply

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