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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Paper Writing is a Web of Lies

It was six pages into my exposition about the morality of acting upon potential individuals that something rather striking occurred to me. I was lying. Not just that I was lying, but that the entire thesis of my paper and most of the arguments I used throughout were complete fabrications. And you know what? I’m pretty sure my professor is going to know it. A whole page about how coercion is the basis of immorality is predicated upon the falsehood that the effect absent coercion is likely to be different. Sixty words about whether or not abortion is more moral than contraception is more immoral than genetic alterations. But it’s like a painting – I can make it say whatever I want it to say, and whoever reads it will probably nod, agree or not, and move on while marking my paper with essentially the same grade.

The entire process is sort of a joke. Is any professor going to be swayed one way or the other by this? Or is it actually so that I can demonstrate my deftness with the various fragments of logic, penned by dead members of the French or Greek aristocracy? If philosophy were a class in auto mechanics, I’m convinced paper writing would be replaced by taking apart a Ford and a Chevy and using parts from both, assembling a car with better gas mileage, if less cohesion. And nothing would be lost in the translation. They tell us that the act of writing papers is to demonstrate our understanding of the material covered, and to give it wings in the context provided by application. All it seems to really do is prove that we can cram our own understanding of the world into the rigid framework of a philosopher’s measured prose. The conclusions come and we send them up the thinker’s stream to spawn the mutant hybrids of reason that we turn in for grading. The reasoning is counterfeit and the better the copy the better the grade; but none if it leads to understanding, or demonstrates the same.

The whole of college seems to be a system set up to see if they can get you to lie convincingly. If that were the actual purpose, I can see both the practical application as well as the value of the diploma. Instead of stating in authoritative Olde English lettering that the bearer has earned a level of understanding, we could abrogate the need for pretense by simply saying, “Jessica Escobar can imitate with a high degree of accuracy several authorities in the field of linguistics.”

This is not, however, what I signed up for.

I can remember the first philosophy class I took. It was a general overview of the field of modern ethics (this is the class where, to spite Peter Singer, I’d eat a bacon cheeseburger every Tuesday and Thursday.) where we’d discuss the writings of people who we were told were smarter than us. We had a grad student leading the discussions, and after class a few of us would usually go up to the hill and have coffee. He gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard from anyone in academia: never defend anything. If you want A’s on all of your papers, just attack. Find a way to assault the reasoning of another person, and you’ll come off as both insightful and intelligent. And that has served me well – there is no philosopher, no matter how renowned, whose writings aren’t chalk full of attackable propositions. A person can make a career of using Aristotle for skeet. The converse is, trying to construct an argument in support of a proposition is apt to come crumbling down. Unless your writing is too obtuse to be read by anybody, or you support vague, amorphous principles which can’t clearly be defined (“utility” is a good one. “Public good” is another.) The only way around this is to support such outlandish claims, that any semblance of an argument remaining when the analytic dust clears is considered a success. For example – defend infanticide, enslaving the poor or homeless, or quarantining everyone with AIDS.

Debate, the activity I spend so much time with, seems to suffer from the same epidemic. There’s a definite conflict of interest between wanting to debate about interesting and generally important topics, and wanting to win. By defending a more expansive idea, one risks significantly more intellectual ground which must be made up. The lack of intellectual courage which exists among most people is not something that can even necessarily be considered bad – the normative reason to take a risk is the proportional reward. But when the incentive structure disincentives such risk, there’s simply stagnation.

So I finish my paper and it turns out to be ten pages of pretense. An aesthetic creation of no substance. I use arguments in a paint-by-number scheme to produce something that resembles a cohesive picture of the world. If the number is two, use Locke. ”A nonexistent entity lacks even the proxy consent coverture provides.” If the number is sixteen, use Quine. Fourteen is Kant, and Twenty-Seven Wittgenstein.. ”The moral proposition which lacks referent is a nonsensical one.”. Right. I’m a virtuoso of disconnects, and it shows. The final product proves my thesis with no fewer than fifty overtly plagiarized ideas put into the words of an overwrought twenty-one year old. And you know what? I’m pretty sure every paper handed in will be the same. The intelligent ones are those who don’t know the plagiary is occurring.

And this is my education.

cranked out at 11:18 PM | |

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