20070930

De realitatis falsis
I'm teaching composition this semester, and at the moment I am grading their first papers, which are to varying degrees an analytical explication of the elements of short fiction. Most of them are all right, but I've come across a disturbing pattern of error in not only their prose but also their thinking: several of them have proposed that something is a "false reality" or that "reality [is] that nothing is as it seems."
As I understand it, these terms would seem to be paradoxical: the idea of reality, especially as we mean it in the post-Enlightenment world, is that there is a single state of being from which all our knowledge arises. To adapt and perpetuate a misinterpretation of Gertrude Stein, there is a there there, and it cannot be changed. What changes is our perception of reality, and that perception is what can be said to be "true" or "false." So why, then, have my students conflated their idea of reality with reality itself, to the effect that they feel it possible to say that reality itself can, on occasion, not be real?
In all likelihood, there are a number of factors at work, from the trickle-down Romantic idealism so popular in American bourgeois culture to the daily barrage of poorly constructed syllogisms that is our current political climate. I'm not out to lay the blame anywhere, but I am sincerely disappointed that not one but several of my students appear to think that reality itself can be unreal. Surrealism I can accept; dreams I can accept; but an unreal reality is too paradoxical for an old materialist like me.
It does lead me to ask, though: what do you think? Am I overreacting, or are there in fact reasons why our students can't tell the difference between "false perceptions of reality" and "false realities"?

Edit: Meanwhile, my parents are in town, and we had brunch (how bourgeois!) at La Maison des Tartes (how aristo!), which was very tasty. On the way back, we took the bike trail, and overtook not only several nice people but a very strange pair of animals: a Great Dane and a small pig, both with the same piebald markings. The Dane was friendly, but the pig was confused. Overall, an amusing afternoon.

2 comments:

Awkward Opus said...

"The Dane of Patchypig"--not to be confused with the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I love La Maison, or at least I did the last time I could afford it. It's great when parents buy, isn't it?

As for the problem of reality, I think it would be simpler to assume that an unreal reality was the least of the average student's intellectual malfunctions, but I don't think it's hopeless. Maybe addressing the paradox in class, without making it sound as absurd as it is (I've made plenty of dumber rhetorical errors than that one), would lead them to think a bit more about...well, about whether the things they say/write make any sense at all. Good luck with it; I'm quite curious as to how that discussion will go.

Jacob said...

That's not a bad suggestion, though I don't know if I could work it in without seriously disrupting the flow of class. Besides, Monday's lecture began with the "you have to structure argumentative essays so that they include both a statement of your argument and evidence to support that" speech. Talking semantics with kids whose argumentative skills are still a little too rough is an invitation to a sacking.