Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Decomposition 101” first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone.
Louis R. Tarsitano on Indoctrination Through “Sharing”
Among my various vocations and avocations, I have spent over thirty years teaching college composition at a variety of schools, large and small. During these years, I have read thousands upon thousands of student essays and drained uncountable red pens. In fact, I have a couple of dozen papers waiting to be graded right now. It was only recently, however, that a thunderbolt of social analysis, based on those student essays, hit me, and hit me hard.
Maybe my own college friends and I were natural cynics or too caught up in the paranoia of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but we were rather guarded about what we would put into writing to hand in to our professors. We had very little interest in revealing anything about ourselves, and so we concentrated on trying to demonstrate our technical proficiency as writers and our knowledge of the subject at hand. This methodology left us feeling a certain kind of smarty-pants invulnerability about what could be included in our permanent records.
Of course, those of us who went on to graduate school and advanced degrees lived to see the day when our practiced academic stoicism was condemned as “a lack of openness” and as “a failure to share.” Although Oprah Winfrey is often blamed for initiating the current orgy of sharing, university and seminary professors in any subject that one cares to name were demanding their students’ innermost thoughts years before Oprah had made her first million.
Some of us, as students and as teachers, resisted this prying into souls, but like Canute, we were unable to stem the tide. The best we could manage was an outpost of resistance here and there. It was especially difficult for those of us who taught composition, since almost every college student is required to complete at least one or two composition courses, and the “sharers” recognized an opportunity when they saw it. Through the years, the textbooks for freshman composition have grown less and less interested in the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and more and more dedicated to the tasks of social indoctrination and the kind of “sharing” that tests whether the indoctrination is working or not.
The textbooks—phase one of the indoctrination process—are too often mere catechisms of secular materialism:
Q: What is the first and greatest law of science?
The previously published “professional essays,” collected and provided as models for freshman writers, reliably treat such opinions as the only possible conclusions of an educated, just, or for that matter, competent human mind. Even the ancillary teaching materials beat this drum. A fairly standard videotape, supposedly on the topic of documenting sources used in student research according to the Modern Language Association model, takes the time to include, as obviously true and entirely unquestionable, a citation from an anti-Southern Baptist source that claims that Southern Baptists are being bad Southern Baptists and violating their most important beliefs when they oppose the ordination of women.
A fair number of dedicated teachers, including old-fashioned liberals, do still take the time to point out that debatable issues are, in fact, debatable, and open to reasoned arguments pro and con; but too many faculty members at too many schools simply adopt the orthodoxy du jour. In faculty meetings, the latter sort of professor meets any suggestion that an ideological tendency is observable in the composition textbooks with shocked incredulity.
Most of the suggested topics for student essays, whether in the textbooks or in the teacher’s manuals, represent phase two of the indoctrination process. Somewhat along the lines of method acting, students are encouraged to delve into their psyches, their emotions, and their most vivid experiences as the source material for their essays.
At first, this method may sound like nothing more than an application of the old dictum “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, however, for students who have been hounded to “share” at every level of their education, what these suggestions amount to is a command to spill their guts so that their teachers and their “peers” (exchanging papers with the student seated next to you is called “peer editing”) can check for aberrant thoughts or attitudes.
But here we come to the thunderbolt that I mentioned earlier. One of the few good things that can be said about materialism or about secular ideology in general is that it does not work very well. Human beings are not made that way. Secularist presuppositions and theories do not fit real people very well, even when a long-term effort has been made to force those people into a secular mold.
Nevertheless, a bad thing, just because it does not work very well, is not rendered harmless. Real people do get hurt, and in this case, the real people who happen to get hurt are disproportionately women.
Almost all of my male students are writing today about the same sorts of things that my first male students wrote about in the 1970s. Young men still dote on cars, airplanes, sports, jobs, and young women. The closest they come to sharing is usually a discussion of their future plans, or perhaps an example of the genre “my greatest day” on the basketball court or in some other sports activity. Here in the South, I get a fair number of essays about hunting and fishing, especially with dads or favorite uncles.
My female students are a different story. Their topics have changed dramatically over the years. Some of the young women do, indeed, stick to the female equivalents of the same sorts of general interests and subject matter that occupy the young men. An amazing number of them, however, will write about the most intimate of private matters, and in graphic detail. They have been absorbed into the world of sharing, and mostly into the province of that world that is ruled by the likes of Jerry Springer and his fellow freak-show impresarios.
More and more regularly I read essays that summarize all the dangers of moral relativism and a doctrine of individual choice taken as an actual rule of life. The wreckage is incredible and unbearable. Young women, just as bright and just as well endowed with intelligence and with promise as the young women who sat in those student desks thirty years ago, think nothing of describing sexual acts in clinical and, at times, pornographic terms.
Women in their very early twenties discuss the complications of raising three children conceived with three different fathers, and how hard it is to find time for fun and for dates with still other men. Sometimes I get a history of divorces and remarriages through multiple generations of a family, an entire family tree of marital disaster, leading to an examination of how difficult it is to decide which mothers, fathers, and live-ins to invite to a student’s second wedding.
What flabbergasts me the most, however, is the sort of essay in which a young woman pledges her allegiance to the sexual revolution, no matter how self-destructive that loyalty may be, by explaining in itemized steps the ways in which every woman is required to defile herself to take her rightful place in the modern world. Some of these essays take the form of “how to” manuals that might as well have titles like “So, You Want to Be a Prostitute?” or “How to Pleasure Your Man.” One student explained, quite sincerely, that it was better to have sex in “relationships” than in “non-relationships” because sex in relationships provides a better opportunity to get to know one’s sex partner, to avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases, and to keep one’s good reputation in the community.
What has been done to these young women is what my police-officer uncle used to call “turning them out”—that is, putting a woman out on the streets as a prostitute. Instead of using drug addiction or physical fear to turn this legion of young women into self-limiting, self-policing prostitutes, however, the decaying culture around us has done the job with ideology, fashion, and a substantial part of what passes for “education.”
The intensity of this organized corruption of the innocent makes one long for the days when a biblical name such as “the Whore of Babylon” could produce an apocalyptic fear of moral and spiritual degradation in the hearts of average human beings. Moreover, if the world is not ending, this civilization certainly appears to be, and young women who ought to be at the very beginning of their hopes and dreams are being recruited on a regular basis to play the part of that Whore, or at least the supporting roles of her little sisters.
I am only in my fifties, but at this point in my life, as an essential element of my one desire to be a good priest and an honorable man, all my aspirations come down to this: I want to live long enough to protect my seven-year-old daughter from being turned into a harlot, so that with the help of God’s grace she may have the chance to become the young woman that God has intended her to be from before all worlds.
As for my students, I pray for them always and look for those occasions when I can push them in the right direction. The one glimmer of hope that gives me any encouragement at all is the fact that, whether out of shyness or shame, most of my sex-manual authors are still reluctant to pass their papers around for others to read. Where the tiny virtues of shyness and shame remain, there is still hope that a greater grace may claim their hearts.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
“Decomposition 101” first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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