Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shakespeare Is Actually Kind of Good When You're Not Living in Chimpanzee World

This quote from Scott Aaronson, an MIT professor who skipped a lot of grades in middle school and high school (and never officially finished high school at all), crystallizes a lot of what's wrong with American high schools:

Usually, a hierarchy will be based on something external: how good people are at doing something or whatever it is. The exceptions are places like prisons, Manhattan society life, and an American high school. There's nothing external, so the hierarchy is based on sheer chimpanzee politics. A nerd, in [Graham's] definition, is someone who is in that environment but who cares about something that matters in the external world. If you're not figuring out how to climb this social hierarchy, you're going to end up on the bottom of it.
Aaronson is summarizing his recollection of an essay called Why Nerds Are Unpopular by venture capitalist Paul Graham.

I also liked Aaronson's criticism of the horrible five-paragraph essay. Gosh, I'm so glad I went through school before they came up with that standard:
I'm a huge believer in that you should be well-rounded. You should take writing, history, philosophy, but I think, in middle school and high school, people get forced to learn things that they aren't ready for. It's the same thing as people being forced to do math when they aren't at a point in their life where they are interested in it. That's actually counterproductive and gets the opposite of the desired outcome. A person learns to hate the thing even more.

When I was in high school we did Shakespeare. We'd have to write five-paragraph essays where you get points for following the format and repeating what the teacher wants to hear. I wrote an essay about Othello and evolutionary psychology because I was reading about that at the time. I got an F because it didn't follow the five-paragraph structure. I got an opportunity to re-take the exam, and I wrote a parody of what my teacher was looking for: an introduction paragraph, "I am now going to introduce topic number two," etc. I got an A+ on that version. The teacher did not realize it was a parody. It was only like 10 years after that where I was able to go back and look at Shakespeare again. And you know what? Shakespeare is actually kind of good.
From Pacific Standard magazine (one of my favorites).

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

The mechanical formulations and list-like structure of the five-paragraph essay are great impediments to genuine thought in student writing. I know teachers who are required to teach that rigid structure and who agree. “Five” itself isn't really the problem: Shakespeare's plays (which are indeed kind of good) have five acts. It’s the stupefying rigidity that makes the five-paragraph essay such a horrible invention.