It cracks me up to look back at the essays I have written for various classes throughout high school and college. Not necessarily because I think they’re silly or something now, but more because of the whole idea of assigning specific topics and then assigning grades to those essays. How exactly do teachers give out these grades? Actually, I understand how they give out the grades; it’s whether the essay meets their expectations or not. I can understand writing comments on an essay and giving plenty of your opinions and feedback to the student, but the idea of assigning a grade to it still cracks me up. Remember, this is not like Ebert giving a movie 2 stars, or 4 stars. With movies, the directors want to make the movie. They are the ones claiming that their movie is worth seeing. With the typical high school or college essay, however, the teacher tells students what to write about, and then criticizes or praises it on whether it meets his or her expectations. The analogy would be Ebert requiring Steven Spielberg to make a movie about “how Tolkien weaves historical themes into The Lord of the Rings” or some such nonsense, and then praising or criticizing the job that Spielberg does. That’s what cracks me up. If its “historical themes of The Lord of the Rings" that Ebert cares about, why doesn’t he make the movie about it.
In all my literature classes and history classes, I don’t ever remember the teacher writing and sharing an essay that they wrote with the class. Thinking back on this now, I actually find this kind of odd. Why did none of my teachers share an essay that they wrote with the class? It’s like they were more interested in doing stuff to students instead of with students, is all I can figure.
Anyway, back to the papers I wrote, I basically took the same approach to every essay assignment I ever had: that is, write about what interests me within the general subject we are studying and then force those thoughts into the requirements the teacher asked for. This same approach usually resulted in approximately the same grade, also: usually about a C (I’ve gotten anywhere from a B+ to a D, I think, but C has probably been my average), but I had actually fun writing the essays about ideas that interest me, so I don’t regret it. I haven’t really read enough of other students essays to really know whether or not I have missed something about “writing clearly” or “giving convincing examples” had I actually tried to meet my teachers’ expectations, but I would suspect the answer to be “I haven’t.”
Here’s an essay I wrote in 11th grade about one of my favorite books, Brave New World. I used to actually care about my grades enough to get frustrated when I got below an A-/B+ on anything (though not enough to change the way I wrote essays, apparently), so I threw out most of the graded copies of my essays. But I’ve still got’em on my comp. I think I got a C- on this particular essay, maybe a C+ or something though, but I actually like some of my ideas. And you can actually see how I forced those ideas into the requirements of the assignment (apparently some sort of compare and contrast assignment in this case), so like I said at first, it kinda makes me laugh.
Conditioning is an addiction; perpetuated by societal pressures and the comfort we take from the stability conditioned behavior offers, it tears away our individuality. Both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley address this issue through the conformity of the societies within the books. Conditioning affects both how people think and what behaviors feel comfortable to us. These two effects work together to deceive us by making us find comfort and stability within certain assumptions and ways of thinking. However, if we resist settling for what is comfortable to us and confront our assumptions with logic, we can break free from conditioning.
Conditioning affects the way we think by making us oblivious to other ways of thinking. When a person is conditioned all of his life to live in a certain way, he often may continue to live in this way, simply because he does not know any other. For example, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a farmer helps hunt down his neighbors who had been falsely accused of killing a lord. He and the other farmers “seemed to feel that in a quarrel between a person of their won class and his lord, it was the natural and proper and rightful thing for that poor devil’s whole caste to side with the master and fight his battle for him” (180). They had been conditioned to think in this way all their lives. However, when Hank talks reasonably with him, he is glad to speak of rebellion against the lord, but is also cautious to deviate from conditioned way of thinking. “He looked pleased; pleased, and touched with apprehension at the same time” (182). The apprehension comes from his conditioned way of thinking. The farmer’s loyalty to the lord is formed around the fact that he never thought of another way to behave. When Hank presented an alternate, more reasonable way to think, the farmer, although a little cautious at first, was glad to side with reason.
While one whose community is treated so harshly would be happy to find a new of thinking, in many situations it is not so easy to side with reason. This is because conditioning also determines what we find to be comfortable and what “the line of least resistance,” (222) as Mustapha Mond calls it in Brave
“We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they are transmitted to us, trained into us. All that is original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up by the point of a cambric needle… And as for me, all that I think about in this plodding sad pilgrimage, this pathetic drift between the eternities, is to look out and humbly live a pure and high and blameless life, and save that one microscopic atom in me that is truly me: the rest may land in Sheol and welcome for all I care” (91).
Although at first Twain seemingly agrees with Mustapha Mond, (that man believes what he believes because he is conditioned to do so), Twain also speaks of a speck of meaningfulness within people. This, which civilization has eliminated in Brave New World, also is the only thing worth saving.
What exactly is this speck of individuality of which Twain speaks? When I am trying to make a judgment about something, I usually think of situations that I have experienced in order to determine what is right or wrong. However, to “humbly live a pure and high and blameless life” suggests that there is an absolute ideal out there; right and wrong are not dependent on my experiences. There is also a truth that I can learn through reason, and, while my experiences may be helpful in discovering this truth, they are not necessary.
When Mustapha Mond asks John if he claims the right to be unhappy, it is the controller who is at last held back by conditioning and John who is finally under control of reason and not reliant upon Shakespeare for his answers. It is the controller who has been so conditioned his life to detest the “necessary” tears and pains of unhappiness, that he automatically rejects the notion that unhappiness would be worth the good that accompanies it. He sees happiness and truth as equal ideals between which man must choose. John, however, understands the true difference. He realizes that, in the end, the smallest truth, although it comes with “the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind,” (240) is better than even the absolute happiness offered by the society in Brave New World.
Truth is all that can have real meaning. Stability and comfort use pleasure to create an instantaneous sense of fulfillment. This is where the civilization in Brave New World has its flaw. Citizens are conditioned to believe that their purpose is to be a proper part of the “social body” to ensure its stability. However, while most of the citizens will be fooled by the sense of fulfillment from the pleasures available in their society, one such as Helmholtz or Bernard, who do not have the pleasures, may discover the lack of fulfillment within this purpose.
Conditioning controls us through our ignorance of other ways of things and the deception of comfort. However, when we stand up against it with logic, truth will win every time. Of course, this leaves us with the problem of knowing what truth is. It is important to know the difference between being conditioned and using experiences to help discover truth. We must always look for the beauty that lies in understanding. Truth has a certain “thunder” that awakens that speck of individuality within us and allows us to see the beauty of reality that is inherent in all that is true. It is through this beauty that we can realize that the pains and sufferings in life are necessary. The choice of sin, including all the pain and discomfort that comes with it, must be available to us in order for the selection of virtue to possess the beauty and goodness that lets us know it is right.