(HT: Daniel Hixon)
Based on Kurt Vonnegut’s short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’, the short film 2081 depicts a dystopian future in which everyone, finally, is equal. The people are stifled in equality: ‘the strong wear weights, the beautiful wear masks and the intelligent wear earpieces that fire off loud noises to keep them from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ I should like to see it some time.
I think of the limitations that schools put on, purportedly for students’ own good. Perhaps that is the intention – school administrators are afraid students will burn out if they take on classes that are too demanding – but people must realize that the variation in the academic rigour that students can take on is almost always wider than they expect. Even if there’s a typical ‘gifted’ student, there’s one who needs an even more demanding curriculum: the variation’s as great as among people with Down syndrome (of whom my cousin is one).
I think of the poem-writing we were told to do in primary school, without strong instruction in poetics. My primary school teachers were very good, some quite excellent, but their good intentions make it no better for primary school students to create poems without knowing what they’re doing. Dear, prose broken into lines isn’t poetry, even if you want to call it free verse: don’t denigrate real free verse poets with such excuses. Forms, so formulaic in their introduction in class, were never things we had the chance to develop a feel for. There was no way for any of us to judge quality except to know what seemed tired, old, hackneyed. Does the fault lie with lack of instruction or with lack of time or with a culture that doesn’t compose poetry?
I think of high school essay-writing. Of course we, at least some of us, could have learnt to write something better than those totally formulaic and insensitive essays with and introduction, three formally parallel but unrelated body paragraphs, and a conclusion. No one said anything about flow on that scale, anything about the accumulation of larger and larger enthymemes with evidence that added to evidence, idea that refined idea, thought that developed thought. Examples weren’t held together by enthymeme, even when we knew what enthymemes were. Attempts were admirable, execution unsuccessful.
I always knew my environment was one that gave empty praise. How could I tell when praise directed toward my work was genuine and when it was spurious? I believed in my potential abilities, and I didn’t believe in my real abilities: there was no way to know, no way to sift through the ignorant judgements of quality, for it was clear that quality was not a democracy. I’ve always needed judgements from people who know what they’re talking about and convince me both by good ethical appeals and by strong logical appeals. Without those, I wear a mask, and while I dream I’m too bewildered to learn what’s good and how to attain to it.
Oversaturation of praise is not encouragement, because evenly distributed praises do not stimulate greater attempts. Even if the teachers don’t make that mistake, society does, and everyone with a mind is suspicious. At least I never got loud noises in my ears to distract me from attempts at… greatness, if you want to call it that.