This week, I am leading more than thirty sophomores to New York City. I hope nothing goes wrong. My students, on the other hand, hope something does go wrong. I understand this hope.
How much good does it do a film or book to have “a good message”? How valuable to a song is a good message? Will a good message do the audience any good?
Merely acknowledging that “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan famously opined, cannot help these questions. If the medium is the message, I still want to know how valuable the message is. My students are quite taken with the importance of “messages,” but I am yet to see messages do people much good. So far as art is concerned, good messages are often more of a distraction than a boon.
"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off."
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil seems a good bit like Chekhov's proverbial gun. Who could blame the casual reader for finding Moses's account of the Fall more than a little predictable? How was Adam not going to eat? Given the characters, their power, the rules, and the furniture, wasn't sin inevitable?
I was a bad student. Starting my freshman year, I attended a classical Christian school. By senior year, I was sneaking down to the local pizza parlor during lunch to smoke cigarettes and watch music videos. I never aimed to do well, only to pass. If my Biology grade was running a 77, that meant I had 7 points to spend on slacking off before the semester ended. I was a teenage sloth.
"Prosperity depraved you; and adversity could not reform you."
St. Augustine, City of God, I.34
My students are confused about why they love sports. I have asked and they have told me plainly, "Basketball is fun." But this is incorrect. Django Reinhardt is fun. Parties with punch and dancing are fun. Basketball video games are fun. Basketball is not fun, though. Basketball is divine and soccer is godly.
Several times in my life, someone has skipped the pleasantries and directly asked me, "Why don't you listen to better music?" While most of my friends listen to the same style of music as myself, I've had a few acquaintances with more refined tastes. The question left me embarrassed, for while I enjoy the intellectual work of unfolding the profundity of Kid A, the real reason I listen to pop music has little to do with my standard apologia. When asked, the Christian pop enthusiast is obliged to state his respect for the masters.
I am selling six hundred CDs this week, roughly a third of my collection. As career smokers do not believe a day will pass without a cigarette, as pious widows do not believe a day will pass without tears, I never believed I would see the day I parted ways with popular music. Must we all grow up? No. But we are free to grow up, and the freedom to grow up makes it enticing.
"Interesting" is an overused word by teachers and students alike. Simply banning a word in class is one way around cliche writing (and cliche thought). On the other hand, spending an afternoon overthinking a term like "interesting" can restore value to the word. Lead your students in a conversation about what makes a thing interesting. Your students may write boring papers and essays simply because no one has ever shown them an interesting thing, identified it as interesting, and investigated the qualities which make a thing interesting.
Most students enjoy a deep read assignment, like the kind described here, wherein the student is given a small passage of a classic text and asked to compose a lengthy series of questions about it. One question per word makes for a nice ratio. 50 questions about 50 words. 100 questions about 100 words. The ratio could go higher, though.