The Curriculum Is Looking At You

copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas, 1992

Whenever I teach a course in English composition, I want to see a sample of each student’s writing as quickly as possible. I want to know if my students have mastered basic points of grammar, syntax and usage, but I also want to get an idea of what kind of students I am trying to teach. Are they observant? Are they at home with ideas? What do they think is interesting?

The first assignment, I have learned through experience, ought to be vague enough to call forth a sense of adventure in the adventuresome, a sense of invention in the inventive, a sense of imagination in the imaginative. In recent years, I have asked my students to begin with what I call the “Who is . . . ?” paper. It’s supposed to be short, and it’s supposed to give an account of someone sufficiently well known to have been mentioned in a newspaper.

I get back papers about politicians and generals, rock musicians and television “personalities,” baseball players and–from my foreign students–soccer players; now and again I get one on a scientist. I have never received a paper on one of my dream subjects: Louise Brooks, Art Tatum, Dick Nen, Alan Turing, Braulio Baeza, Alain Chapel, John the Baptist, Stevie Smith, Pascal, Sonny Liston.

Most of these papers are dull and mechanical. Very few of them try to account for the subject with an anecdote. Most of them are written by people trying to play safe. They rarely contain an original conception of anything. But all of them use concepts, usually default concepts. Taken as a group, they confirm what I have learned from historians and anthropologists: contemporary urban people are almost certain to identify themselves and others solely or largely by referring to individual accomplishment.

Like all contemporary default concepts, this one seems “natural.” How else can we account for a person? Isn’t it inevitable to account for a person by explaining what she does or what she did?

It is certainly normal in our culture tacitly to accept the concept that a person is what she does, but it isn’t inevitable, and it wasn’t always so. I take the default concepts my students have used and begin to make them conscious of them as concepts.

I turn to the the oldest books of the Old Testament, the books of Samuel and the books of Kings, and read them the account of Elkanah. This account is quite different from any “Who is . . .?” paper I’ve ever read from one of my students or, for that matter, any Man in the News column I’ve ever read in The New York Times.

“There was a man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill-country of Ephraim, named Elkanah, son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, and Ephraimite . . . .”

I am not enough of a Hebrew scholar to understand the nuances of this genealogy, but it takes Elkanah back to his tap-root in four generations. I think I do not know anyone who can name his ancestors going back four generations. I can’t. I know that my grandfather barely spoke English and before that no one in any earlier generation in my family spoke English at all, but this didn’t disqualify me from becoming an English professor. No one asked about my ancestors’ language when I applied to graduate school. Like most urban people in this century, my roots in the place I am “from” are shallow; should I be offered the right job, I suppose I’d leave for California, North Carolina, New Jersey, Paris quicker than any Ephraimite ever left for Ramathaim.

Sometimes people ask me where I got my Ph.D. or even who my dissertation director was, but no one has ever asked me who my great-great-grandfather was or where he came from. I don’t think it matters; not many other people do either.

Yet I know this indifference to descent would astonish not only Elkanah, but people who lived much closer to my own time, people whose work I admire, study and teach–and sometimes imagine I understand. I am thinking now of Velásquez, who died as recently as 1660. I know that this painter, a great master in a century crowded with great masters, spent a fabulous amount of energy trying to establish claims–in some cases impossible to document, in others simply false–about his ancestors. He expended this torrent of energy over many years in order to qualify for membership in one of the royal orders. He wanted to be a certified hidalgo, a word that means, more-or-less, “the son of a somebody.”

It took a papal dispensation and a royal patron eager to accept the patently false claim that Velásquez did not do so sordid and vulgar a thing as work for money, but Velásquez got his wish. The insignia of his order is painted on his tunic in his only certain surviving self-portrait, a self-portrait included in Las Meniñas, one of the most famous and most admired paintings in the world.

It stupefies me to think that being the painter of Las Meniñas did not seem to Velásquez a sufficient basis on which to ground a satisfactory sense of who he was. What he wanted was to be a certified son of a somebody.

Theodore Zeldin, a historian I admire, says in the introduction to his fascinating study of French culture from 1848 to 1945, “I believe historians can make a contribution to clearer thinking about present ideals, habits and institutions, in which the inherited element is always large.” This expression of belief comes just a few lines after Zeldin’s characteristically pithy and original description of history as “an essential part of the constant process of re-assessment that every generation makes of itself, of the constant debate about what is worth keeping of the past and what is not.”

I don’t know anyone who can do anything as well as Velásquez could paint, but even people of very modest achievements identify themselves by those achievements and give little thought to whether their remote ancestors qualify as “somebodies.” I do not doubt that I belong to a generation whose re-assessment of the past has included a decision to abandon a sense of identity derived from ancestry. If I were to write a “Who is . . .?” paper, I might pick a subject none of my students has ever written about but, like them, I wouldn’t spend a line on genealogy. I know who Alain Chapel’s father is, but I wouldn’t dream of describing the greatest French cook of the post-war period as Roger Chapel’s son. If I were describing Roger Chapel, competent and honorable cook that he was and champion swimmer to boot, I might, of course, describe him as the father of a somebody.

Are you wondering what Elkanah the Zuphite’s great-grandfather, Velásquez’s passion for a royal order and Roger Chapel’s son have to do with English composition? After all, none of these people ever spoke an English sentence. What about sentence structure? What about commas? What about verb agreements?

My answer is that I know something about Elkanah, Velásquez, and Roger Chapel and while they may never before have been considered in the same essay, I have included them here to illustrate a concept about how people identify themselves. What gives life to writing is not spelling and punctuation or even rules of grammar and syntax but concepts and the desire to express them. I cannot realistically ask my students at the beginning of a composition course to write something interesting, but that is what I hope they will be able to do at the end. To reach that goal, it is necessary to help them conceive of writing as an intellectual activity, not a mechanical one. Punctuation, spelling, syntax, grammar are a kind of top layer to the presentation of concepts and ideas. No ordinary writer is interested in them for their own sake; until they become important to the presentation of a writer’s subject, they are as irrelevant and as invisible to non-linguists as the activities of theoretical sub-atomic particles are to non-physicists. But writing itself is an intellectual performance not a slalom event in punctuation and syntax, and any composition course I have ever seen succeed begins with ideas. Frequently, the only ideas available at the beginning of a composition course are default concepts that almost no one gives any thought to. Fortunately, they are as stimulating as any other ideas once we become aware of them as ideas and, of course, absolutely everyone has them.

Thinking About Writing