The Self is Harder to Find Than We Think

“To thine own self be true” sounds really good on stage. It even makes a pretty good bumper sticker and, on the surface at least, seems like a good essay prompt. “In the face of X ethical dilemma, how would you react if your friend gave you Polonius’ advice?”

Unfortunately, Polonius’ poetic call to existential arms rings hollow if you don’t know your “self” or lack an understanding of “true.” More to the point, such advice assumes the “self” and the “true” are equal. One simply needs to locate one and the other follows.

Admittedly, any prompt using Shakespeare is far better than the prompts my son is being asked for college entrance exams and scholarships. “If you were an animal, what kind would you be?” Better yet–“If you were ice cream, what flavor would you be?”

And we wonder why our students chaff under rigorous essay assignments in first-year composition courses?

The problem with such prompts isn’t just that they are meaningless and imply that a student’s sense of self (and their sense of self worth) is more valuable than their academic training. These prompts also encourage our students to put themselves and their ideas about themselves at the front and center of the college application process.

The danger, and I use that word purposefully, in foregrounding our students’ sense of self-identity is we reinforce the ego and narcissism all too prevalent in the 18 year old brain. If, for instance, the student already knows what kind of ice cream he is, where is there room for purposeful discovery? (Or, perhaps even more importantly, when did our lives become so devoid of value we can be compared to food?) Worse yet, we admit students who think they are self-fulfilled before they step foot in the classroom.

Naomi Schaefer Riley, over at One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education, argues we should ban first person writing. “Everything about college and the process leading up to it,” she writes, “makes students believe that their innermost feelings are of the utmost importance. Professors (the good ones, anyway) complain that students begin every answer with ‘I feel.’ This is emblematic of a certain self-absorption combined with postmodern fuzzy thinking.” While I think she errs in her use of postmodern here (she’s not really using postmodern as an adjective to fuzzy–she’s using the two words as equals and I don’t think the postmodern is necessarily fuzzy), she does point to the danger of self-absorption and a useful way to reinforce the value of not-ourself.

More to the point, the immature use of the first person pronoun in college application essays and in college classes blurs the lines between critical thinking and completion. I might even argue that the increased use of the first person leads to grade inflation. How, exactly, do you grade an essay about a student’s personal life? We might attack the grammar, mechanics, and structure, but how do we offer constructive feedback about the articulation of ideas? Grades, whether we like it or not, reinforce these feelings that the self is the most important (and in these essays, the only) source worth checking. When we admit a student to college or give a student an A for telling us why she is vanilla ice cream in grammatically correct sentences, we simply justify her self-assessment regardless of its value or validity. That’s a pretty low bar for the “true.”

While it might be easy to attack the educational establishment for creating such assignments and emphasizing self-esteem over rigorous self-critique, we should note that popular culture is rife with people whose only defense for ideas is “I believe.” Politicians, talk show hosts, ministers, community leaders, and journalists consistently play loose with facts, using “truth” as a tool to further an agenda. At one point, remember, the Texas Republican Party platform advocated ending teaching that challenged “the student’s fixed beliefs and undermin[ed] parental authority.”

Why would we expect our students to be any different?

For our students, we have created an educational system (and increasingly a political system) where everyone is an expert on everything, regardless of their qualifications. Our students come to us suffering from 12 years of too much introspection and reflection. We have too often asked their opinions and beliefs without requiring they prove they even belong in the conversation. They will be, Polonius would be proud, happy to be true to their “self,” even if their “self’ is leading them down a path of ignorance.

Instead, we must force (yes–force) our students to engage with ideas outside themselves. We have to stop asking them to turn inside before they are aware of what is outside the self. “There are more things in heaven and earth,” we might steal from Shakespeare again, “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It is those “things” that create an educational arena worth exploring.

This is no small task and, as I’ll write later in the week, it doesn’t necessarily require a common core or a bevy of standardized tests. It does require, though, that we begin reminding our students expertise is work. I’m increasingly weary of reading my 18 year old students comment on immigration issues as if they have spent a lifetime understanding borders, politics, and historical pressures on population and landscape. Eating chips and salsa doesn’t make you an expert on Mexico. More troubling is their willingness to believe their grammatically correct musings carry equal weight with scholarly, peer-reviewed work. Sure, they might imply, that guy spends hours studying immigration trends, collecting data, and reading laws, but I believe I’m right. It’s all good, they might add condescendingly, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

Sigh. Maybe I’ll just ask what kind of ice cream Machiavelli was in the next class.


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.

One Response to The Self is Harder to Find Than We Think

  1. Martina says:

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