Seeing Double: Learn From the Rest, Not From the Best
One of my favorite guilty pleasures is reading and rereading “The Inheritance Cycle” by Christopher Paolini. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, the series contains many wonderful flashes of brilliance from a talented young writer. Secondly, the books are also deeply terrible.
Reading “Inheritance” challenges the reader to sift through convoluted plot, shaky dialogue and other flaws in order to identify and appreciate the really good elements. It forced me to confront why I felt certain parts work and others didn’t. All in all, I think that Paolini taught me more about good writing than Dickens, Tolstoy or Twain.
At Amherst College, students and teachers of the humanities often assume that students benefit most from studying the best of the best. We go through the writings of the world’s greatest thinkers with a fine-toothed comb, trying to unlock the wisdom of the ancients. Even if you haven’t heard the name of every author on your syllabus, odds are that they are all in the top 95 percent of their fields. But the downside of focusing primarily on the work of people like Socrates, Shakespeare, Sartre and Sagan is that students don’t often get the chance to sift out nuggets of inspiration for themselves. Too often, students take the work of great thinkers as gospel, seeing hidden meaning in every typo and consequently losing the instinct to critique more flawed documents (also known as: basically everything ever written).
Colleges like Amherst should expose their students to more examples of mediocre work, be that in art, fiction, philosophy or even scientific research. Imagine, for instance, an LJST class where students read everyday court arguments from fifty years ago, instead of the carefully crafted court opinions of Ginsburg and Scalia. Not only would students learn what most courtrooms are actually like, but they could freely praise and criticize the work based on their honest opinion. Students could work together to discuss methodological errors and in doing so speculate on how they might have avoided those same pitfalls.
Of course, many students have already been inadvertently exposed to mediocre works in their everyday lives. But reading flawed works shouldn’t be a coincidence or accident, it should be part of a deliberate exercise. By acknowledging that flaws themselves can make a work worthy of discussion, professors could make critical analysis, rather than simple interpretation, the centerpiece of the class.
Acknowledging flaws in the source material would also enable classes to cover topics and mediums traditionally seen as too ‘trashy’ or ‘lowbrow’ for academic study. That way, students could turn their favorite genres into academic texts. My co-columnist, for example, could use the genre that he most loves (which can only be described as ‘misery porn’) to systematically examine what makes some tragic moments in film feel rich and impactful, while others just feel empty.
If students had more classroom exposure to flawed work, they would also feel more willing to take risks and make creative choices in their own works, because they would no longer feel like the ultimate goal was perfection. Rather, students would feel comfortable experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. Even beyond the classroom, Amherst students should show more willingness to try things with which they have no particular skill. Demonstrating and acknowledging that the rest of the world also makes major mistakes would encourage more openness about one’s own mediocrities.
With their newfound critical skills and confidence in themselves, students could take a more active role in the development of their fields. Inevitably, as students went through obscure works, they would find overlooked gems and identify them as such. Far from erasing the canon of important works, acknowledging the value of the average would refresh and modernize the essential reading list, making it reflect the unvarnished thoughts of the many rather than the polished ideas of the few.
Although college campuses might not always admit it, the real world is filled to the brim with glaring errors, careless mistakes and simple stupidity. Rather than just learning from the most respected thinkers, colleges should teach their students to dive headfirst into the flawed products of everyday life. By learning how to critique, improve and grow, students will have the tools to go out, take on this messy world of ours and turn those flaws into strengths.
If nothing else, it would give people a reason to read my co-columnist’s articles.