2016 Furman University Graduation Speeches

I am no fan of ceremony—especially ones that trap you for hours in a false setting of formality—and I am equally no fan of what is often a hollow part of the graduation ceremony experience, the graduation speech.

I am a fan of one of the masters of graduation speech as satire and brilliance, Kurt Vonnegut.

At the 2016 Furman University graduation, however, I witnessed two wonderful addresses—one by a student and one by a university board member. I invite you below to read the transcripts:

Read W. Randy Eaddy’s address

Regardless of the activity, the key questions are these:  Who will you call (or text) to invite?  Who will accept the invitation and come?  Who will not?  And, in each case, Why?

Will you invite, for example, any of the following people who may work at your company, or who may be enrolled with you in same graduate program, or whom you otherwise see frequently and with whom you are cordial, but who are not part of your circle for personal social interactions:  the woman who wears a hijab?  The man who speaks with a thick foreign accent and is sometimes difficult to understand?  The woman whom you saw wearing a “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt?  The guy who has a buzz cut and likes to wear cowboy boots?

Imagine the answers if you are working, affirmatively and purposefully, to achieve a deep, first hand, understanding of the self-defining perspectives of other people.

I realize that interacting with people who appear to be different makes most of us uncomfortable and uneasy.  “What will my friends think?”  “How will they react to these unfamiliar other people?”  “How will they react to me for inviting these other people?”

Read student Nathan Thompson’s address

President Davis also suggested in her inaugural address that, “maybe it’s time to progress from the idea of service and service learning to equal partnerships and mutual stewardship of place.” Put simply, we must become women and men who are not just for others, but with them. Our work and service aren’t acts of resume building and self-congratulation; they are the foundation of relationships between equals.


See Also

My Speech to the Graduates: Don’t Listen to Graduation Speakers

Recommended Reading Week of April 24

This list of suggested readings is eclectic, reflecting my interests, but I believe they are quite important—even though they range from issues of race and class to James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut.

Recommended reading week of April 24:

Raising Creators, Not Consumers

Traded my daylight
For a career

“Theory of the Crows,” The National

“I’ve yet to meet the writer who didn’t have an inspirational English teacher,” explains writer and former poet laureate Andrew Motion. “Mine was Peter Way,” adding:

This was his gift to me – and he gave it without ostentation, always speaking modestly and carefully, in such a way as to make poetry (in particular) seem an endlessly ingenious thing, but also as natural to the species as breathing. He lent me books from his own library, encouraged me to write my first poems, helped me to prepare for my university entrance and afterwards managed the transition from teacher/pupil to close friend/close friend. It’s no exaggeration to say that in certain ways he gave me my life.

My life as a reader, writer, and teacher also had its genesis in an English teacher, Lynn Harrill—my sophomore and junior teacher as well as my mentor and friend for many years since.

In the November 2003 English Journal (see below), I wrote about Lynn, highlighting how he steered the path of my life, including the initial impact:

1976. Mr. Harrill was my high school English teacher, though I had first met him over the summer as my drivers education instructor. I spent all of my free time at school in his classroom—an intellectual, emotional, and personal refuge for young people just becoming themselves. After I had read two Arthur C. Clarke novels, Mr. Harrill suggested I move on to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Lawrence. My life changed. We students were encouraged—not just allowed—to discuss and debate literature and the “Big Issues” of the day in Mr. Harrill’s class, and he happily refereed. We knew that he valued us as people; we knew that he loved us. And our lives changed. One day at break during my sophomore year, Mr. Harrill said to me, “You should think about teaching.” I laughed.

As Motion experienced, I was introduced to who I am by my English teacher, Lynn, who helped me on the course grounded firmly in words—reading voraciously, writing daily, and teaching with and about words.

I am not a poet laureate, but I am a poet and writer—and I am also as a teacher, a person who spends his life creating.

So when I saw the tribute by Motion and then read a comment on my blog about poetry from a parent homeschooling in order to raise children as artists, I was moved to think harder about our obsession in the U.S. with “college and career ready”—an obsession decades-long and really about career, or most factually about using public education to produce workers-as-consumers.

To work and to consume in the service of others.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful satire, Player Piano, Paul Proteus tells his wife Anita:

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.”

And while Vonnegut is taking aim at corporate America, I have noted the novel is also satirizing our reductive approach to learning and knowledge, the blind faith in IQ as a technocratic way to know if someone is ready to become that worker-as-consumer.

We should read Vonnegut carefully, and we should heed his warning.

We should also listen to Motion about how teachers matter, and we should step away from our insistence that the purpose of a human is to become a consumer.

Potentially, we are all creators, artists, and not in some condescending way that suggests frivolity, but in the way that is fully human.

As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors, to foster creators and not consumers is the greatest gift we can offer another human.

And once again, I sit writing, and thinking, “Thank you, Lynn.”

I work daily to pay this forward on his behalf.

Call 1

Call 2

Call 3

“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

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On Family and the Inevitable Inadequacy of the Human Heart

For casual readers of Kurt Vonnegut, his broad use of dark satire likely cloaks the enduring streak of idealism running through his fiction, public talks, and essays—notably his unwavering faith in “artificial extended families,” which is central to what his genre-bending Prologue to Slapstick or Lonesome No More! notes is “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.”

In that opening, Vonnegut implores in typical inverted Vonnegut logic:

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.” (p. 3)

Like “common decency,” kindness weaves its way through Vonnegut, as the eponymous main character of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater demands:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

The family, decency, and kindness—these are the ideals that have always drawn me to Vonnegut’s work, Vonnegut’s message. But ideals often reveal themselves quite differently in the lived world.

#

During my doctoral work, I became a biographer, writing an educational biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. And over the past twenty years or so, I have read a high number of biographies, often of writers I admire.

Biography is a damning thing, however, because people bigger than life laid bare are mostly exposed as just like us—and when bigger than life is juxtaposed with just like us, those people seem very, very small.

It is parallel to that moment as a child when you recognize your parents are flawed humans, just real people.

Biographies of e.e. cummings have left me hollow and numb, especially in terms of his relationships with wives and his daughter. Like Vonnegut, cummings is filled with idealism about children, love, and carpe diem, but his ability to fulfill that idealism was mostly absent.

Reading the first major biography of Vonnegut, then, also peeled back the curtain from the man who created out of tragedy (the death of his sister, Alice, and her husband) an “artificial extended family” and who wrote in “Biafra: A People Betrayed”:

General Ojukwu gave us a clue, I think, as to why the Biafrans were able to endure so much so long without bitterness. They all had the emotional and spiritual strength that an enormous family can give. We asked the general to tell us about his family, and he answered that is was three thousand members strong. He knew every member of it by face, by name, and by reputation.

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities—and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own—perfectly naturally. (p. 150)

There is a beauty and impossible idealism in this description that I do believe Vonnegut aspired to personally and then for all of humanity. He continued, wistfully:

The families were rooted in the land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Lovely. (p. 150)

Yet, just like us, Vonnegut’s bigger than life personae was not sustainable on this mortal coil.

So it goes.

#

While teaching Advanced Placement Literature, I often helped high school students anticipate the complex world of literature. While patterns and truism certainly can be disrupted by individual works of literature, a few are very helpful for young readers faced with a timed high-stakes test demanding both rapid and complex responses to dense literature.

And so, I often stressed that literature is ripe with examinations of the family as a source of great tension—King Lear, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, As I Lay Dying, and I could list for quite some time.

For me, I think, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof resonates powerfully as just such a work that demands we consider how difficult, if not impossible our roles as parents, sons/daughters, siblings, spouses, and lovers are—Tennessee Williams pens a song that echoes with the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.

Ah, the universal truths of great literature: the family is the source of our greatest passions and our greatest calamities.

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While Vonnegut has profoundly shaped the young adult and aging adult me, as I have noted often, George Carlin—along with Richard Pryor—is my guiding initial voice for my world view, my own emerging and developing voice, and my relentless demand that we understand and shape the world with words.

Elizabeth Blair’s The Dark Side Of Funny: Growing Up In George Carlin’s Shadow, in fact, explains:

Stoned or not, George Carlin was also a perfectionist. According to Jerry Hamza, George’s manager and best friend for more than 30 years, the comic worked at his craft incessantly. He says, “I would tell people, ‘Well, where’s George? He’s up in the trees,’ because what he wanted to do was write. He wanted to go away, be by himself and write.” When George wasn’t writing, he and Hamza were on the road driving to gigs, TV tapings and meetings with entertainment industry types. “I spent more time with him than his wife or his daughter,” Hamza says.

And it is there, in this piece on Carlin’s daughter’s memoir of her father that, like Vonnegut, Carlin’s lived life just like us crashes against the bigger than life comedian Carlin, whose routines about child rearing were performed in front of his daughter:

In fact, in a 1999 HBO special George ranted about overprotective parenting:

“You know what it is? These baby boomers, these soft, fruity baby boomers, are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren’t even allowed to have hazardous toys for Christ’s sakes. Hazardous toys, s***. Whatever happened to natural selection, survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn’t get to grow up and have kids of his own.”

The audience howled and Kelly says she laughed, too, though she wasn’t all that surprised. “I sat in the audience listening to this going, ‘Well, of course this disgusts him, because, you know, he was the ultimate laissez faire parent.'”

I find myself both compelled and repelled by Kelly Carlin’s A Carlin Home Companion. I also both know and do not know what is between the covers of that book.

What is there is on the family and the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.

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I am one not prone to giving advice, and even when I do, it is laced with so many caveats that the actual advice gets lost in the trimming.

Advice almost always seems trivial, trite, and the person giving advice is faced with the monumental task of not being either a hypocrite or a pompous ass.

So let me offer what I know, and take it as advice if you want.

There will be moments in life if you live long enough that you will regret above almost everything else having not appreciated the kindness and love bestowed upon you by others.

You will regret taking for granted those people, and their gifts of love and kindness.

Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet.

Knowing this, of course, has little chance to keep us from making that mistake—even repeatedly.

But I wonder if we have the capacity to recognize when we have given in to the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart, I wonder if we have the capacity then to do something not to erase the failure but to make things right now.

And I wonder about my dear muses Vonnegut and Carlin, nonbelievers both, possibly somewhere in the Great Beyond still committed to the better humans we could be but now relieved of this corporeal Self that is a glorious jumble of soaring human passion and stumbling human frailty.

In the last paragraphs of his Prologue to Slapstick, Vonnegut recalls his idea for the novel and how Alice is central:

Who is Melody? I thought for a while that she was all that remained of my memory of my sister. I now believe that she is what I feel to be, when I experiment with old age, all that is left of my optimistic imagination, of my creativeness.

Hi ho.

Hi ho, indeed.

And so, I am sorry, and you know who you are. Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet. I am begging you to take that seriously because that is one family I do not wish upon anyone.

The Irony of Believing Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains

Hamlet: “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.” (1.2.76)

How completely high was I?
I was off by a thousand miles

“Heavenfaced,” The National

“Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts,” explains Barbara Kingsolver in her High Tide in Tucson. “But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”

As I flipped through my cable movie options last night, knowing that the beginning of each month brings new films to watch, after watching Birdman, I noticed Lucy airing. I recalled that the film had mixed reviews at best, but I am a science fiction fan so I decided to give it a try.

Lucy relies heavily on the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains, and the film weaves together the main character Lucy with a neuroscientist who studies and speculates on humans using more of their brains—a good bit of “hypothesis” and “theory” language tossed around there—as well as what many may view as a documentary approach that includes cuts to not just realistic but real-world scenes.

For good measure, the film also plays with evolution—Lucy as the first human.

Viewers, then, are faced with a few challenges. First, is Lucy a good film? And related, is Lucy good science fiction?

But if we pull back from simply examining medium and genre (which I find to be very compelling discussions, by the way), we must consider Kingsolver’s dilemma as a writer.

Before scientists had even viewed Lucy, the drumbeat began pretty heavily:

Now I suppose a perfectly good response to this is, “Come on! It’s only a movie.” And I think that is what Kingsolver was pushing against: when is fact, fact, and when is fiction merely fiction.

Yet, as Christian Jarrett explains, the film speaks to a powerful misunderstanding widely embraced by people today:

Does anyone really believe this myth anymore?

Apparently so. For example, in 2012, a survey of school teachers in Britain and The Netherlands found that 48 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively, endorsed the myth. Last year, a US survey by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found that 65 percent of people believed in the myth.

The larger problem beyond Lucy as good or bad film/science fiction is that, ironically, despite the 10% myth being completely refuted by scientists, humans have a powerful capacity for choosing what we believe to be true while almost entirely ignoring evidence to the contrary—and often in ways that are detrimental to us all.

Lucy‘s nod to evolution is no small matter here as the U.S. is unlike most of the so-called advanced world in rejecting and misunderstanding evolution. This is a subset of the fact that the public in the U.S. resists a tremendous amount of science and knowledge while clinging to ideology and mythology.

The consequences of the belief culture have been waved before us and the world recently as the Charleston shooting has resurrected “Heritage, Not Hate” among those unable to see the facts of history behind hollow sloganism.

While believing a false statistic such as humans use only 10% of their brains or perpetuating discredited legends such as The Beatles wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as a paean to LSD may seem trivial (please, just let us enjoy our films and music), as the cultural clash over the Confederate battle flag reveals, clinging to the corpse of unwarranted belief ultimately erodes the very promise of the human brain, our capacity to think and then to act—although Kurt Vonnegut has mused that the too-big human brain may, in fact, be our problem, not our solution.

Journalism and education policy remain crippled by flawed approaches to science: the 10,000 hour rule, “grit” narratives and research, and the “word gap”—all of which are uncritically embraced and as misguided as thinking humans use only 10% of their brains.

Once again, for example, only a week ago, Education Week published a piece beginning:

In 1995, the researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of their groundbreaking study that found 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their age-mates from professional families. This difference has been called “the 30-million-word gap.”

Not true, however, this study that will not die because it claims something people want to believe, something that seems true.

There is a democracy to belief that builds a wall against our idealized trust that human knowledge is progress, that to commit to universal education, for example, can lift us all above human misery.

Lucy as a film sputters, but when Lucy explains her expanding mind to Professor Norman, this moment about the essential nature of being human, fully human, confronts the tension between knowledge and knowing the self and others. I think the film has some small nods to empathy and compassion beyond the reductive view of science as quantifying, science as certainty.

How much of our brains we use seems pointless if we remain a species characterized by closed minds, unable or unwilling to build on evidence to form new ideas, unable or unwilling to check our existing ideas against evidence.

As Lucy’s mind expands, she recognizes and demonstrates for the viewer a cold, robotic thing, drained of desire and passion.

I am left, then, leaning toward Vonnegut’s view that the human brain is our problem, not our solution.

For Further Reading

Cycling to Extremes, Chris Case

Don’t Stop Running Yet!, Larry Creswell

On Southern Heritage and Pride

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson

For Skylar and Jessica

When writing about my redneck past—born, raised, and now having lived my entire life in the upstate of South Carolina—I reached back to my grandparents and parents as a way to give context to who I am and how I “got to be this way.”

In the waning days of June 2015, in the sort of near-100-degree heat we tend to suffer in July and August, SC has been exposed to the rest of the U.S. and world in a way that is hard for me as a Southerner to face: nine innocent souls slaughtered in a racist rage.

While the domestic terrorist responsible for this logical consequence of a people hopelessly clutching a culture of violence in the form of the right to bear arms and willfully blind to the lingering racism that stains our refrain of “life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness” sought to start a race war, instead a state and national conversation has begun about the embarrassment that is Southern Heritage, raised like a petulant bully’s middle-finger on the grounds of SC’s Capitol.

I have never felt pride about being a South Carolinian, a Southerner, or an American—these are all mere coincidences of my birth.

It makes no real sense to me, this personalizing geography and then mangling history and ideology in order to create barriers among people.

As a high school teacher in SC for nearly two decades, my students often bristled at my confronting them about the flag fetish among many white students, mostly males.

As a life-long witness to Southern Heritage, I have come to recognize that we are not unique but representative in the South of the worst aspects of patriotism, nationalism, and jingoism—making a commitment to a false narrative to preserve an ideology that ultimately is self-defeating and dehumanizing.

Those most fervent about Southern Heritage and fundamentalist faith in the South have something important in common: an incomplete at best and missing at worst understanding of either the history of the South (and the Confederacy) or the Bible.

There is a selectivity to calling on history and scripture that exposes the real commitments of the fervent: holding onto a world that insures other people remain inferior.

“Heritage Not Hate” is propaganda, and as Aldous Huxley notes: The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

It is the cruelest sort of irony that Southern Heritage advocates misrepresent history as many fundamentalists misrepresent Christianity because those false narratives seek to dehumanize and divide.

Yes, my family and community shaped who I am and how I “got to be this way.” And I am certain the South and SC have played roles in that story of me as well.

But I have no specific idea if any of my ancestors participated in any way in the Civil War or slavery; I must imagine that those ancestors in the South during those eras were like most people—in most ways directly or indirectly complicit in horrible human acts.

I must imagine that because we are directly and indirectly complicit now in horrible human acts—some so large and pervasive that most cannot see them (our consumer culture that includes the wealth of the few on the labor of the discardable many).

I have no desire to contort reality around my ancestors or the history of the region I happen to be born in as a act of somehow justifying my own value as a person.

Southern Heritage and Pride are abstractions that allow a callous disregard for the very real world around us—a world that is unnecessarily violent of our own making, a world that is horribly inequitable of our own making, and a world trapped in the labels of “heritage” and “Christian” but unwilling to learn from history or act on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I simply cannot embrace a past that reveals all the ways we have failed each other.

It seems instead that today and every “today” we are called to imagine how the world can be better and then do something to make that happen.

I am grateful in many ways for the life my grandparents and parents afforded me, but my life has also included making choices to set aside many things that redneck past inculcated in me, things that do not fill me with pride, but shame.

The enduring possibilities of human dignity have been my guideposts that I found in literature (not garbled and romanticized history or cherry-picked bible verses): William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings, Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Adrienne Rich.

But the moral barometers who ultimately saved me remain the voices I hear daily: Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin.

Vonnegut writes through Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

Baldwin confesses in “They Can’t Turn Back”:

It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.

I feel no pride in being a South Carolinian, a Southern or an American; I did not choose any of that geography.

But when I read Vonnegut and Baldwin, I am proud to be a fellow human and I feel a sudden rush of hope found in the pages of literature—as author Neil Gaiman recognizes:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

And this is my confession: While white parents gave me life, black authors saved my life.

I have debts to pay, and I must pay them forward—things I cannot do clutching a past that has failed us all.

Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

Let’s not tell them what to write.
Lou LaBrant, The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing (1936)

Kurt Vonnegut was a genre-bending writer and a Freethinker, a lonely pond fed by the twin tributaries of atheism and agnosticism. So it is a many-layered and problematic claim by Vonnegut, also a writing teacher, that writing is “unteachable,” but “something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

This nod to the authority of God, I think, is more than a typical Vonnegut joke (the agnostic/atheist writer citing God) as it speaks to a seemingly endless debate over the five-paragraph essay, which has resurfaced on the NCTE Connected Community.

To investigate the use of the five-paragraph template as well as prompted writing as dominant practices for teaching writing in formal schooling to all children, I want to begin by exploring my own recent experience co-writing a chapter with a colleague and also couch the entire discussion in a caution raised by Johnson, Smagorinsky, Thompson, and Fry: “Just as we hope that teachers do not oversimplify issues of form, we hope that critics do not oversimplify intentions of the legions of teachers who take this approach” (p. 171).

Writers and People Who Write

My colleague Mike Svec and I are working on a chapter in a volume, and we are examining our work as teacher educators who have working-class backgrounds.

Mike is an academic who occasionally writes. I am a writer who happens to be an academic.

And therein lies a problem for our work as co-writers. Mike spends a great deal of time mulling, reading, planning, and fretting (my word) before committing anything to the virtual page.

I write as part of my brainstorming, and fill up the virtual page so I will have something to wrestle with, revise, reshape and even abandon.

Filling up virtual paper is Mike’s late stage. Filling up virtual paper is my first stage.

This experience has highlighted for me two important points:

  1. Most people (students and academics/teachers included) are not writers, but people who occasionally write (and then, that occasion is often under some compelling requirement and not the “choice” of the person writing).
  2. Especially people who occasionally write, and then most often under that compelling reason or situation, suffer from an inordinate sense of paralysis (I am going to argue further below) because they have been mistaught how to write (predominantly by template and prompt).

Since most teachers of English/ELA and any discipline in which the teacher must teach writing are themselves not writers, the default approach to writing is at least informed by if not couched in Mike’s view of writing—one that has been fostered by template and prompted writing instruction (the authoritarian nod in Vonnegut invoking God above).

And this is my big picture philosophical and pedagogical problem with depending on the five-paragraph essay as the primary way in which we teach students to write: Visual art classes that aim to teach students to paint do not use paint-by-numbers to prepare novices to be artists, and I would argue, that is because those teachers are themselves artists (not teachers who occasionally paint).

However, most teachers of writing in all disciplines are themselves not writers, but teachers who occasionally (or in the past occasionally) write (wrote).

Why Scripts, Templates, and Prompts Fail Students and Writing

In a graduate summer course for English/ELA teachers, I had the students read a commentary by Mike Royko (syndicated columnist) on flag burning. I asked them to mark the parts of the essay and underline the thesis as they read.

And these students who were also teachers dutifully did so.

Royko’s piece in most ways does not conform to the five-paragraph essay, but the teachers marked and labeled an introduction, body, and conclusion—underlining a sentence as the thesis. They immediately imposed onto the essay the script they taught their students (the script they were taught).

When we shared, they noticed differences in their labeling and marking. Most notable was the thesis: Royko’s piece is a snarky, sarcastic commentary that directly states support for flag burning laws but in fact rejects flag burning laws by sarcastic implication.

As a consequence, no direct thesis exists—although we can fairly paraphrase one.

I continue to use examples such as this with first-year students to investigate and challenge templates for essays they have been taught (for example, essays by Barbara Kingsolver) in order to work toward what Johns calls “genre awareness” instead of “genre acquisition.”

Yes, essays have openings that tend to focus the reader, but most openings are primarily concerned with grabbing and maintaining the reader’s interest. And openings are typically far more than one paragraph (essays have paragraphs of many different lengths as well, some as brief as one word or sentence).

Essays then proceed in many different ways—although guided by concepts such as cohesion and purpose.

And then, essays end some way, a way I would argue that is not “restate your introduction in different words” (the Kingsolver essay linked above frames the essay on attitudes toward children with an opening and then closing personal narrative about Spain).

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Scripts, templates, and prompts do most of the work for student—leaving them almost no opportunities to experiment with the writer’s craft, whether that be in the service of history, science, or any other discipline. Without purposeful practice in the business of writing (making purposeful decisions while implementing the writer’s genre awareness against the constraints of the writing expectations), students (and even academics) are often left in some degree of paralysis when asked to perform authentically as writers.

As Zach Weiner’s comic succinctly illustrates, the five-paragraph template/script and writing prompt serve greater ease in assigning and grading writing (absolving the writing teacher of having expertise and experience as a writer, in fact), but as the student in the comic declares: “Suddenly I hate writing.”

And as Jennifer Gray details:

[M]any of [the students] checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.

As much as I love Vonnegut, I disagree about writing being unteachable. And his own role as mainly a writer who occasionally taught writing presents another lesson:

Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

Well, yes, we do know quite a great deal about teaching writing—and we have for many decades. So if “leave them alone” means do not use artificial scripts, I am all in, but certainly developing writers of all ages can be fostered directly by the teacher.

I am left to worry, then, that the main problem we have with teaching writing is that for too long, we have mistaught it as people who occasionally write, and not as writers and as teachers.

This is a herculean ask, of course, that we be writers and teachers.

But for the many who do not now consider themselves writers but must teach writing, it is the opportunity to begin the journey to being a writer with students by committing to genre awareness instead of genre acquisition.

Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays.

But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.

Kingsolver’s warning about child rearing also serves us well as teachers lured by the Siren’s song of the five-paragraph essay: “Be careful what you give children, or don’t, for sooner or later you will always get it back.”

Kurt Vonnegut: “What other advice can I give you?”

After surviving the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and then decades as a chain-smoker, U.S. author Kurt Vonnegut’s death in 2007 felt tragi-comic since it came from tripping while walking down stairs.

In the wake of his death, the world has been offered an expanding universe of Vonnegut including an authorized biography and greater attention paid to his visual artwork, first offered as comic doodles in his novels such as Breakfast of Champions.

Shields KV bioKV drawingsBreakfast of Champions KV

Vonnegut’s fame came relatively late in the 1960s and 1970s and was spurred in part because of his popularity with college students, who gravitated to his dark humor and counter-culture messages in Slaughterhouse-Five. But Vonnegut also built a career as a public speaker, notably at college graduations.

SlaughterhouseFive KV

As an avid reader and occasional Vonnegut scholar, I continue to understand better the complexities of Vonnegut the person and the persona, indistinguishable in his novels and his public talks, but remain drawn to his enduring messages of love, kindness, and hope.

“You will find no lies in Vonnegut’s words of advice,” explains Dan Wakefield, writer and lifelong friend of Vonnegut, adding in his introduction to a collection of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches: “He is one of the truth tellers of our time.”

Nice KV

Vonnegut excelled in bending and blending genres, and in his graduation speeches, he both paid tribute to the form, mocked it, and gave it a new life, one only possible from the creator of Kilgore Trout, himself the embodiment and personified satire of pulp science fiction writers.

Sumner KV

“If this isn’t nice, what is?”

As a writer, Vonnegut bristled at being labeled a science fiction writer, argued that no one could teach someone to write (while working at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop), and explained that he wrote by crafting a series of jokes, having developed as a child an enduring love for his sister and slapstick.

Slapstick KV

Vonnegut’s contradictions and mis-directions are on full display in his graduation speeches, where he often began by addressing directly both the purpose of commencement talks (giving advice) and the futility of such ceremonies.

“We love you, are proud of you, expect good things from you, and wish you well,” Vonnegut began at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia on May 15, 1999:

This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown women—what you were biologically by the age of 15 or so. I am as sorry as I can be that it took so much time and money before you could at last be licensed as grown-ups.

If graduation speeches are meant to punctuate ceremony, then Vonnegut was going to throw cold water on ceremony.

If graduation speeches offer one last moment for sage advice from elders to the young, Vonnegut was going to say something to displease adults and disorient the young.

But always wrapped inside his curmudgeon paper was a recurring gift, one that tied all of his work together: Vonnegut was tragically optimistic and even gleeful about this world.

On cue, then, at Agnes Scott, Vonnegut rejected the Code of Hammurabi, revenge, and admitted he was a humanist, not a Christian, adding:

If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.

I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.

Finally, to those young women, Vonnegut concluded:

I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.

How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?

Hold up your hands, please.

Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.

All done?

If this isn’t nice, what is?

A Socialist Non-believer Preaching Love

If Vonnegut was anything, he was a proud Midwesterner, haling from Indiana, who reveled in invoking the name of Eugene V. Debs, a rarely acknowledged voice for workers throughout the late 1800s and into the early 20th century and central inspiration for Hocus Pocus.

Hocusa Pocus KV

Vonnegut as freethinker, then, always stood before graduation audiences, disheveled and wild-haired in the tradition of Mark Twain, the embodiment of the tensions created by college education—where young people often discovered everything their parents feared young people would discover.

The great irony of Vonnegut as graduation speaker was that his perch as counter-culture icon provided him the opportunity to express the central beliefs that, in fact, were what the adult world should want from the young.

Vonnegut thanked graduates for pursuing education, but then apologized for the mess adults had left them to face.

At Butler University in Indiana on May 11, 1996, Vonnegut celebrated his homeland, where he witnessed:

People so smart you can’t believe it, and people so dumb you can’t believe it.

People so nice you can’t believe it, and people so mean you can’t believe it.

And as was typical of his joke making, Vonnegut, acknowledged atheist, turned to the Bible at the end: “As I read the book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.”

He lamented, then: “There’s a lot of cleaning up to do,” and “[t]here’s a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical.” But out of this mess, Vonnegut reminded the graduates: “And, again, there’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice!”

One cannot help hearing always in the background of Vonnegut as public speaker, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater imploring:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”

God Bless You KV

Vonnegut as a graduation speaker implored us all to pay attention to the things that matter. These moments are ceremonies, yes, but important reminders in these times we agree to pause before moving on.

See Also

“reading a biography (in the absence of you)”

Thomas, P. L. (2013, April). Looking for Vonnegut: Confronting genre and the author/narrator divide. In R. T. Tally, ed., Critical insights: Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 118-140). Ipswich, MA: Salem Press.

—–. (2013, January). 21st century “Children’s Crusade”: A curriculum of peace driven by critical literacy. Peace Studies Journal, 6(1), 15-30.

—–. (2012, Fall). Lost in adaptation: Kurt Vonnegut’s radical humor in film and print. Studies in American Humor, 3(26), 85-101.

—–. (2009). “No damn cat, and no damn cradle”: The fundamental flaws in fundamentalism according to Vonnegut. In D. Simmons (Ed.), New critical essays on Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 27-45). New York: Palgrave.

—–. (2006). Reading, learning, teaching Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Peter Lang USA.

In God We Trust?

Writing about her The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia”:

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen if we don’t pull up our socks.

Atwood’s now contemporary classic reads as a brilliant hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—”dire warnings” about the allure and dangers of totalitarian theocracies.

Literature, in fact, comes back again and again to warnings about fanatical and fundamentalist religion, especially as that intersects government and politics.

Powerful in its concision and word play, e.e. cummings’ satire of pompous political patriotism begins, “‘next to of course god america i/ love you'”—weaving a stump speech both garbled with cliches and distinctly lucid in its pandering.

The last line (“He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water”), the only words not being spoken by the unnamed politician, comes after the dramatic rhetorical question: “‘then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'”

Like Atwood, Orwell, and Miller, cummings is offering his warning about draping ourselves in the flag while simultaneously thumping the Bible.

In God We Trust?

Having been born, raised, and then living and working my entire life in South Carolina, I have mostly existed in a default culture of Southern Baptist religiosity, a fundamentalist view of scripture.

I have witnessed and continue to witness religion used both as a rod and as a water torture: at once a blunt and instant tool of judgment and a relentless, although only a drop at a time, force for keeping everyone in line.

And that line is decreed by God, so they say.

However, this is not something exclusive to the South—although many continue to rely on scripture to justify corporal punishment and even misogyny in my homeland.

The history of the South, too, offers countless and disturbing “dire warnings”: justifying slavery with scripture and the historical roots of Southern Baptists as a result.

But fundamentalism in the South and the dramatic consequences may mask the thread of those same beliefs running throughout the nation. Consider “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the place of prayer in public schools.

The public is mostly misinformed about all of these, but easily swayed by the political implications of invoking “God.”

“God” on currency and in the Pledge (as a Cold War political ploy) represents a political manipulation of religion (using religion to score political points), as the history of how each occurred reveals. But prayer in public school may be the best example of the problem.

Formed under Ronald Reagan, the committee eventually drafting what is called A Nation at Risk included Gerald Holton, who has revealed Reagan’s “marching orders” for the report:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom [emphasis added]. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

When the president of the U.S. misrepresents a fundamental issue, when virtually no one (media, etc.) holds the president accountable for the misrepresentation, and then when that inaccurate claim remains powerful for decades (until today), we would be careless to suggest that the danger of religion and politics is simply a vestige of the backward South.

Neither prayer nor God has ever been removed or banned from public schools. In 1962, forced prayer was ruled unconstitutional—which ironically seems to be the sort of law the Libertarian-leaning streak in the U.S. would embrace. Yet Reagan Democrats and Tea Partiers are the exact national demographics calling for “religious freedom” legislation, much like the redundant and unnecessary legislation guaranteeing students the right to pray in public schools.

“Freedom To and Freedom From”

“Religious freedom”?

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia,” Atwood’s narrator, Offred/June, recounts. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

Women training women, Atwood dramatizes, is about control—control of their bodies and control of their minds, which includes controlling language.

“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice,” Offred/June adds.

Again, I live in SC, a “right to work” state, so I am attuned to the Orwellian language gymnastics so wonderfully emphasized in Atwood’s novel, echoing Orwell’s “dire warnings”:

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….

The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (p. 7)

Therefore, I am skeptical—if not cynical—about the proposed “religious freedom” law in Indiana. I am also disturbed that this is occurring in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Indiana, and as Garrett Epps discusses, there are important connections to Indiana’s law and SC:

Until the day he died, however, [Maurice] Bessinger insisted that he and God were right.  His last fight was to preserve the Confederate flag as a symbol of South Carolina. “I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” he told his hometown newspaper in 2000….

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.

Being reared in the fundamentalist South, I was given mostly a negative education in morality—all that I was determined not to do and be.

My moral compass has come from literature instead—Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut.

These calls, then, for “religious freedom” ring Orwellian, not about “freedom” at all but about the sorts of cancerous marriages between religion and politics already played out time and again in the U.S. to deny marginalized groups what those in power enjoy as if such is ordained by God.

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“Do you know what a humanist is?” writes Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.

I am compelled to suggest that the question is not, In God we trust?

We must be very cautious about anyone who speaks in God’s stead; we must adopt Vonnegut’s stance toward our fellow humans.

Indiana should feel the consequences of humans’ inhumanity toward humans—a great irony is that this wrath appears to be the Invisible Hand of Capitalism—and like great literature, Indiana’s political hubris and indecency must fulfill Atwood’s recognition of the power of “dire warnings.”

Indiana, pull up your socks.

Recommended

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby