Is English Ethical?

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I had a discussion about this before with a few friends who are involved in the humanities which is that I not only think that it is logically inconsistent to grade people on their thoughts, it may also be unethical, a hindrance to true creativity and spontaneity and an enormous detriment to society.

It really makes no sense to say you want to encourage thinking, but then look over the person’s work to make sure they are doing this correctly.

I think it’s more fair to mark on grammar, spelling and general readability of one’s writing.  However, I think marking on content is nonsensical because it hinders genuine freedom of thought.  Giving contradictory messages that there is a correct way to be original is extremely damaging to the human psyche, in my opinion.

That’s why you don’t get many true philosophers or artists coming out of formal academia within the humanities, in my opinion.

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12 thoughts on “Is English Ethical?

  1. This seems rather a sweeping accusation. You seem to be saying (and I stress ‘seem’, because I may have you totally wrong) that if, for example, one is asked to write an essay on a particular topic, one should get full marks if you write an essay on a different topic but expressed grammatically.

    If you’re referring to ‘creative writing’ rather than essay-writing, then I would turn your argument on its head and suggest that one should be free to play fast-and-loose with spelling, grammar, and meaning too.

    However, we should ask ourselves what our tutors/teachers/etc are trying to achieve by asking us to write something, what discipline they are encouraging us to exercise, before castigating them for marking us on content. If I am writing an essay for a tutor (and it is many decades since I did, I have to add), I would expect to be marked on how I built up a case for my ideas; most tutors I know did not mark me down because they disagreed, they marked me down because of a flaw in the build-up of my case.

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    • Yeah, I would say being able to be free in grammar and spelling is a good idea.

      My problem is the creation of an illegitimate authority over thought.

      So for example, I needed to pass English in order to get into Pharmacy school which has absolutely nothing to do with creating interpretations of certain works of English literature. There is a message (in my opinion) that only after you have proven you conform to traditional modes of thinking are you allowed to enter the professions.

      Students are forced to interpret pre-selected literature and make up stances about topics they may not even believe themselves for who knows what reason. “Why am I doing this?” is the huge sweeping question that has always pervaded over the courses related to the humanities I’ve been forced to take throughout my life. “Why am I being forced to write an essay on a particular topic?” is the big question. And how does society determine who has the right to say “this content is good or bad”?

      It was only after I finished being forced to “think” and began reading the works for myself that I truly started to understand the meaning and importance behind the words. A lot of great poems relate not only to life, but alienation, and that can include alienation from the current intelligentsia. So how can one truly express that sense of alienation on an essay being marked by the intelligentsia itself?

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      • Expression in all languages, in all cultures, has what Barthes (I think) called a ‘reference code’. That is to say, every culture has a ‘normalised’ ideology built into it. Even when we think we are thinking/expressing ourselves freely, in fact much of our assumptions are governed by pre-existing meanings. This is damn nigh inevitable.

        Most of us accept some kind of authority on a daily basis – we have little control, if any, over what our governments do, what the shelves of our stores contain, what’s in our newspapers, what experts in a field of which we know nothing say – and we suck it up. We do so without thinking much about it, and there’s a school of thought that says if we did think about it we’d go insane (I’m not actually convinced of that myself, but I acknowledge that the argument has some weight).

        Bearing that in mind, the answer to “Why am I being forced to write an essay on a particular topic?” is “Because it’s on the syllabus.” But I don’t think that’s what you’re actually asking. I think you’re asking two things:

        Firstly: Why do I need to pass English to be a pharmacist? To that the answer is that if you do, and you’re operating as a pharmacist somewhere where English is the main medium of communication, you’re never likely to dispense the wrong product based on a misunderstanding! Understanding certain works of literature may be taken to indicate firstly that your knowledge of the language has breadth as well as depth, and secondly that you are capable of using your brain. I don’t think it’s any more sinister than that.

        Secondly: Why do I have to accept the opinions of the people who are marking my essay? Practically speaking, to get through the course. But it’s as I implied before: bad tutors will mark you down for not conforming to their prejudices; good tutors won’t.

        I am a little surprised that you regard ‘the intelligentsia’ as a whole as a parcel of rogues, and the learning of English to be superfluous – that’s why I said your accusation was sweeping. I’ve no idea where you’re studying or where you will practice pharmacy, but good luck in both.

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        • Yeah, for sure it’s inevitable. Our brains are wired to conform. But it’s dangerous to create an institution that tries to “control” that thinking in any way.

          Yeah, we all accept some authority, but we should reduce this as much as possible so people think and understand things for themselves. Even better than me being a medication expert is each individual person having an understanding of medical science themselves (as much as possible.) Obviously, there is so much knowledge in the field, experts will still be needed, but I do feel people need to leave their field once their services are no longer required or can be better utilized in a different way.

          I’m sure we would not go crazy by thinking more freely and reducing the amount of intellectual “authority” in society. Even monkeys and animals know how to organize themselves and feed each other, obtain their basic needs etc. etc.

          I’m positive there is a sinister level to academia because there is a sinister level to all sectors of humanity and society in general. People have natural biological and unconscious methods they use to maintain elite control whether people like to admit it or not.

          Obviously I need to know the language, but why do I need to be able to read Shakespeare? I still have a hard time trying to understand even the basics of what he is trying to say sometimes. What if I am a great scientist or practitioner. I don’t feel I should be excluded just because I can’t understand language that is centuries old.

          People are using their brain most when they ask “why am I doing this?” Again, who has the right to tell me when I am using my brain correctly and when I am not? That’s mind control. It really and truly is.

          People in academia work by cliques. Again, I know. I’ve been in University for many years and I see what people are like. There is the desire to maintain control over thinking. One method is to create certain criteria for discourse and then exclude those who do not conform to it, in my opinion. It’s just common sense. There used to be wicked tyrants and kings, but in order for culture to flourish, a group of enabled men and women had to contribute to art, poetry etc., but not in a way that would conflict with power or they would be beheaded. That type of thing still existed in modern times under modern dictators.

          In countries with free speech, we see the remnants of that type of behaviour where people “think,” but don’t truly question.

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          • Okay, you’ll love this. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Allan Bennet, and Jonathan Miller, from the 1962 satirical stage show ‘Beyond the Fringe’, taking the total piss out of Shakespeare.

            Personally I adore Shakespeare, but it’s a case of different strokes.

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            • Lol, I mean, I don’t despise Shakespeare or anything and I quote him often and enjoy watching a play every now and then, but his work just leaves me a bit high and dry sometimes haha.

              I wrote you a post about a good friend of mine who is an English instructor at MUN university. I’m not sure if you received it. Just double check the comments section of this post if you didn’t get it directly.

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    • I’ve said it many times to my friend who is an English instructor as well – that I feel a formal institution for the humanities is a reaction to the existence of poverty.

      For example, if people could just live off the system and do what they wanted (which is no longer impossible with increased food/technology/manufacturing) someone like you would utilize your skill set by holding book club meetings (just as an example.)

      Just to illustrate, perhaps someone with your understanding of language and your enjoyment of reading could hold regular book club meetings in your neighborhood. People would come to you just because they enjoy the selection of books you choose and your interpretations or explanations of certain works.

      It would be an environment where creativity and discussion is stimulated through a solid foundation of mutual respect for each other’s ideas and the collective enjoyment of conversation and story-telling. I think it would be better than an environment where people go and do homework and hand it in for grading, if you know what I mean.

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      • I think in fact that you have described a society based on mutual aid, which is my ideal. However, such a society would want to balance abilities and needs (without a State to dictate what those abilities and needs are, so an anarcho-communist set-up in effect), and someone might want to go deeper than the ‘book club’ level into literature. That would mean they would need to find someone whose abilities were more developed – more academic if you will – to teach or to mentor them. ‘Homework’ is a good way of testing whether the learner has engaged with the subject and used his or her critical faculties.

        I have a friend who teaches creative writing at college level.Obviously, as a teacher, he sees the need for structured learning and for ‘homework’. However, he favours ‘erasing the grade’, or at least hiding it. See this blog post:
        http://snoekbrown.com/2014/04/24/erasing-the-grade/

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        • Homework, grading, and mentor-ship is fine, but again, it’d be nice if such things were more voluntary. I have had a lot of professors (from literature to philosophy to economics) who stated they would not be there if they had the money to be somewhere else, if you know what I mean.

          And speaking on reducing state authority, what is your personal opinion on a system of direct democracy which is now more feasible than ever with advancements in technology, communication and the distribution of digital information?

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          • Essential. But it has to involve a reversal of power to local assemblies, because it is at the micro-level that ordinary people are at their most competent to make decisions. Where decisions have to be made at a less local level, it should be by delegate rather than representative assemblies. Setting things up like this will mean that it is not simply weighted in favour of people who are electronically connected (i.e. in more wealthy areas), and it will function if the technology fails. I’m in favour of something like the late Murray Bookchin’s ‘Libertarian Municipalism’. Imagine a network of autonomous kibbutzim (for want of a better term), confederated to cooperate with each other, irrespective of ethnicity, lines on maps, etc., and you’ll kinda have it.

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