The Hard Work of Being Human

booksWhen I tell people I teach English, there is often a pause, followed by a palpable silence. I can see the gears at work as people try to remember junior high English, SAT vocabulary words, or the name of at least one novel they have read (or heard about). I could try to set their minds at ease by saying something grammatically mangled. “Ain’t” is a good word to just throw out in conversation. “Ain’t nothin'” is better. Mostly, I want to tell them I have no plans to judge their speech and I don’t carry a red pen around. The goal of communication is to articulate ideas and there are a variety of paths we can follow to achieve such a goal.

While I’m no grammar nazi, I do appreciate a well-turned phrase and precision in language. I teach my students that they have to master grammar first, then they can go forth and pervert it all they want. The key is control. Know you are writing that fragment. Understand the impact of the repetitive sentences. Recognize the value of pronouns and antecedents.

It doesn’t even bother me when my 15 year old tells me he hates English. I’ve seen the assignments and I’m fairly certain I would hate the class, too. They once spent 6 weeks reading Frankenstein. Shelley probably wrote it faster than that. They read Julius Caesar but didn’t finish the play. He had to find quotes (that’s good) but he had to match them with photos and pictures independent of the play (that’s not good). He’s drawn pictures, pretended to be a contemporary of the author, filled in worksheets, but they rarely discuss the work or try to understand why we might find Shakespeare worth reading in 2013. Worse yet, there were far too many questions asking my 15 year old son about his feelings (because what 15 year old boy isn’t excited about sharing in class?) and not enough questions asking him to actually look at the text.

Even more problematic to me: any writing they do is independent of discussions about, well, writing. Conversations about choosing words, manipulating sentence structure, and rhetorical strategies don’t seem to ever take place. Note that I have a great deal of sympathy for my son’s English teachers. They have too many students and too many external agencies telling them what to teach and what to test. In many ways, we have placed the burden of the arts at the feet of overworked and underpaid teachers while we simultaneously tie their hands with unwieldy mandates by legislators, teachers unions, and parent-advisory groups that are far too often politically motivated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who has unrealistic expectations regarding reading and writing. Both are time consuming and require an interest in vocabulary, historical understanding, a willingness to engage the language, and practice. I don’t, quite frankly, buy any arguments that contend we can turn all of our students into lifetime readers and lifetime writers. Communication might be an innate element of humanity, but writing and reading are not.

It is no surprise, then, as we begin another semester that many of my students tell me they don’t like to read or have never had to read. (I am always surprised they feel compelled to tell me they don’t like to read, as if somehow that will excuse their future performance. They often also tell me when they turn an essay in that “It’s probably not very good.” I like to respond, “Thanks for letting me know. The grading will go quicker. If it’s not very good, I’ll just slap a D on it and be done.”)

What does bother me is that we have,  in the name of practicality or employment, stopped fighting for the value of the humanities. Sure, we can make the case that every job a college graduate wants requires communication skills. We might argue that literature and art helps us interact with our fellow humans, thereby increasing our ability to survive office politics. Poetry can benefit the professional, they tell us.

But I’m a little tired of listening to those arguments. The value of the arts, quite simply, is that it challenges our expectations of reality by forcing us to simultaneously be introspective within the context of our daily lives while considering our larger social and historical place in the world. We read Shakespeare, I tell my students, because he has the ability to capture his moment in time while also transcending that moment. Good literature reminds us what it means to be human. It’s no accident that much of our early written literature spends an inordinate amount of time showing us mortality. We are not, the ancient texts remind us, god, nor are we meant to be.

Literature and the arts take us on an epistemological and ontological journey where we struggle with how knowledge is passed and where we exist within that transfer. This journey, one that requires both introspection and attention to detail, forces us to dedicate ourselves daily to being a human being. That is our first and most noble identity. Being a banker, teacher, journalist, or our work identity should always be secondary and subservient to our humanity. Our philosophical ideology must be realized in the concrete reality of our daily actions regardless of whether we earn a paycheck.

Being human should be hard work. When we cede our responsibility in the name of practicality or simplicity, we forfeit the very traits that separate us from the other animals on the planet. Blind allegiance, unchecked lust, ideological laziness–these are the signs of a world that stops valuing the arts. Literature isn’t about escape or visiting other worlds: literature is about digging in and getting dirty in the soul of humanity.

And, yes, this will be on the test.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to The Hard Work of Being Human

  1. I loathe the fact that nearly every activity in our culture has to be monetized and have practical application. I do believe the humanities has a practical application to being human, but without direct correlation to a bottom line, humanities are getting de-funded at every level of education. Well-written post, thanks.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment and well said. I agree and wish I had added that idea of monetized education. That attitude that students are customers is really problematic.

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