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.
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