Brevity for Whose Benefit?

When I was trying to get into St. John’s College, because of my poor high school records, they required me to take several classes at the local community college to prove that I could perform at a college level. I had to take an English, a math, a science, and a foreign language course, attaining no less than a B in each of them. After completion, I would be considered by the admissions department.

I registered at the community college and took their placement exams. To my shock, I was placed into an Honors English class, which meant that I was allowed to bypass the two lower level English classes at the school. English was the class in high school that convinced me to stop showing up, so getting into Honors English in college was surprising.

In my senior year of high school, I was hanging out with people I probably should not have been and I was skipping a lot of school, living anywhere I could. My English teacher told my parents that he could not let me pass his class if I did not turn in my last paper. I was also informed that my only hope of graduating was to pass senior English and to not miss another day of school. I was honest enough with myself to know that I was not going to write the paper, so I just stopped showing up to school.

Here I was in college, enrolled in an Honors English class. The irony was not lost on me. The professor I had for the class, an amazingly intelligent man, was the head of the Humanities Department at the school. His class consisted of reading a variety of literary classics and then writing one-page essays about themes we found in the books or plays. The professor would then tear apart our papers word by word, line by line. It was humbling, but I learned a lot and I appreciated the harsh critiques.

Near the end of the semester, I asked the professor why he had us write one-page papers instead of longer papers. “Is it because you are teaching us how to be more concise with our ideas and our writing,” I asked. “Well, that is one benefit I suppose,” he said. He then paused and continued, “But why would I want to read poorly written three-page papers?”

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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