Why all the Subjects in High School are Taught Horribly Part 1: English

It seems that the breaks between posts keep getting longer and longer. I have been legitimately busy though. Actually that’s not even close to true but I’ve done so little this summer that doing literally anything at all makes me feel like I’m super busy. In reality, I’ve done like two things in the past month. I went to college orientation and GP Sacramento. Predictably orientation sucked. It’s one of those rare situations where you are simultaneously bored out of your mind but also not completely comfortable. It’s a nasty combo because usually when I’m bored, I just think about something interesting but thats much harder when I’m not fully relaxed. It’s not that I’m actively nervous, just a low level not relaxed which really has no other effect than making it hard to escape to my mind. And usually when I’m not relaxed its because something exciting is happening. At least I ended up in the by far least enthusiastic group so everyone around me was also miserable.

In the GP, I ended up coming in 16th which was a little disappointing given that I started out 8-0 and was pretty confident going into draft but 16th was still good for $1,000 and 3 pro points. Plus, I was happy to see Richard Liu take town the whole thing. Anyway between being “busy”, starting a couple posts that didn’t go anywhere, and lacking motivation in general, this post is three weeks too late. Its really poorly written but I panicked when I realized how long it had been and then promised myself I would complete it by wednesday. But then I left almost all the work until wednesday so I’m sorry for how terrible this is but actually posting something hopefully will give me motivation to work on this blog more. Because if I don’t finish this today, I will be favored to never finish it.

This is my second post that is copying a topic from Evan Chen. I would link his post but apparently there is something called a pingback, which will make a link to this post show up at the bottom of the post I link to. It seems a little stalkery to have two posts on the same topic as his, linking at the bottom of his posts, especially because his posts don’t contain any other pingbacks. But this post has lots of different ideas so it’s not a complete copy.

Anyway, one of the main points, and a point central to this post, is that school teaches very dishonest writing. The task in writing is always to pick a side and to try and be as convincing as possible. I think this is very true and very bad. I have never once been told by a teacher to make sure I actually believe my arguments or to write so that the reader has the clearest picture of the actual truth but I have been constantly scolded for not being completely focused on convincing the reader of my claim. I remember when I was I was younger that my take away from school was that is was a good thing to be dishonest in papers. It showed that you had the ability to manipulate facts to your own benefit. But this is a terrible thing. We are literally teaching all of our kids to disregard truth and what you actually think in favor of being ruthlessly dishonest and doing whatever it takes to convince others of whatever.

But what causes this? In a sense it can be viewed a simple case of the prisoner’s dilemma. It probably favors a student to learn how to be convincing but it is bad for the rest of the world. So society would be much better if all students learned to argue honestly even though it would be better for any individual student if they learned to just make the most convincing argument. But I think a lot of the reason is actually an accident. It is a cause of what kids learn to write about.

Persuasive Writing

A big part of the English Curriculum is persuasive writing. A student is given a prompt and they are asked to pick a side and argue it. A lot of the time the prompt is of the form “Should X?”

Now we can divide “Should X?” prompts into two categories. 1) Where the effects of X are not well known and 2) where the effects of X are well known.

A good amount of prompts given in secondary school fall under category  1. The thing is, it is incredibly hard to write anything interesting about a type 1 claim. How can anyone possibly add anything of value? To honestly answer such a question you need to find some moral framework, convert all effects of X into equity based on the moral framework and sum them all up. (It should be noted that while most moral philosophies are not talked about in terms of equity it should be theoretically possible to convert anything to equity by simply comparing states of the universe and ordering them by “better”)

Now this is an incredibly difficult, basically impossible task especially for a high schooler. For one, it is hard to separate out different parts of X, you are bound to leave something out. And even if you don’t it is hard to know how to break everything down. But let’s just say you accomplish this task. If you do break down X into all its main effects, your left with the task of assigning them all an equity value. Even if it is an easy moral philosophy to assign equity to, like Utilitarianism, people are terrible at assigning numbers to things. And slight variations on how you assign numbers which depend on lots of different factors have a very good chance of impacting your conclusion. So it is not realistic for you to assign equity to each effect. The only plausible strategy seems to be surveying tons of people and asking them what equity value they would place on each of the effects and then things might average out to an appropriate number.

No high schooler has ever done this. But what strategy is left. If you are answering a type 1 prompt what else can you possibly add? The answer it not much. You have no hope of finding some new angle because all the effects are known. So what you usually end up doing is just listing all the effects and saying something like “As we can see the good effects outweigh the bad effects” while your classmate is writing “As we can see the bad effects outweigh the good effects.” All anyone can possibly do is list out the same facts as everyone else and claim that it favors their side.

Now, if you want to be a “good” student you  need to go a little further and try to explain why to good effects are better than one would think and the bad effects are not as bad as one would think. But how can you do this? You really have two options. 1) Use a statistic favoring yourself even though there are other statistics out there which are contradictory and you have no reason to believe the statistic you used over others which makes the argument dishonest or 2) Use a bullshit emotional appeal/chosen diction that makes it sound like the good effects are better than they actually are or the bad effects are worse than they actually are which is also dishonest.

The mere task of writing about type 1 claims will make students dishonest even if there is no intention. Kids want to get that A and so they need to find ways to make their writing stand out. Kids want to make the most convincing argument they can make and since there is no way they can do that honestly, their only option is to craft their writing in a dishonest way and skew facts to favor their side. And if they ask for help, the teacher will likely point them in a dishonest direction without even knowing it.

Type 2 claims are incredibly hard to write about and boring to read. This is why getting debates like “should abortion be legal?” never end anywhere.

Type 2 claims are in theory easier to make an actual contribution to and for serious writers they are, but if the claim is well known, then it is near impossible for an average high schooler to make a useful contribution. If it is a common debate, like say economic policy, then even though the effects are not well known, a typical high schooler is never going to be able to actually figure out for themselves what the correct answer is and argue about it effectively. So what happens, when a high schooler encounters a common type 2 claim? They can’t offer anything useful so they do what their trained to do and treat it exactly like they would a type 1 claim. I would bet the vast majority of high schoolers have ever thought that type 1 claims and type 2 claims are different at all and just end up using the same formula of finding a statistic that benefits them and trying to make their writing style favor their side of the argument without ever realizing they are being completely dishonest and never saying one useful thing. This is made worse by the fact that if the student actually tries to get into the weeds of the debate and find truth, they will probably get a worse grade than if they just tried being dishonest because the paper will look less clean.

I remember in 11th grade, we had a persuasive essay assignment and there was a list of topics that were off limits. That list contained “should abortion be legal?” At the time I don’t think anyone really understood why they were off limits but I now realize that these were all either type 1 prompts or common type 2 prompts that no high schooler could make any contribution to.

So what should be done about this? I believe that schools should teach the difference between type 1 and type 2 claims but more importantly give kids more niche prompts. Research projects that have never been explored or there is not easy access to information about. Make them actually either find reasonable data or reason from first principles. I think this would have a huge effect not only on how much kids learn, but also students philosophy towards arguments in general. If kids grew up writing honestly instead of being taught to make the most convincing argument with no regard to its validity, it might have surprisingly good benefits on society.

Literary Analysis

Literary analysis is a strange beast. Its insertion into the curriculum was probably quite natural. Back in the day, they taught kids to read and write. When they realized that could be done quickly and kids started going to school longer, they needed to extend the English curriculum. They realized that you had to be able to read to read books so reading books seemed like a good idea. Moreover many books contain a lot of meaning that kids could legitimately benefit from. But this being the American education system, schools needed a way to test that kids actually understood the meaning behind books. Literary analysis seemed like a perfect fit.

There’s was only one problem. Traditionally literary analysis is a daunting task. One needs to analyze the whole body of a work holistically to make conclusions. But since American kids are lazy/stupid the schools could only really expect a few pages of work. So the task simply became to pick a claim, find a couple of passages that support the claim and write it down. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the book supports that claim or not and there is no time to adress alternative theories or counter arguments, after all American kids are very lazy/stupid. Even more troubling, the original goal of literary analysis was to test to see whether kids understood the most important ideas of the book. But in now times, kids are one google search away from reading all the prominent analyses of the book. So a kid can’t just make claims about the most prominent claims in the book because then the teacher would assume they just looked online. Additionally, it is culturally cool to think your better than everyone else and to stand out. So this leads to kids needing to make new non-trivial claims.

But to figure some hidden small piece of meaning from a book is a difficult task for american kids who are lazy/stupid. And since a piece of literary analysis is just a few quotes from a book, it is much easier to just pick a random claim with no regard to whether it is true or not, and being trained with all the dishonest persuasive writing, it is not difficult to search through the book until you find a couple of passages tangentially related to your made up bs claim and spend the paper finessing your way through the outrageous assertion that anything in the book is actually related to your bs claim. There’s also no need to bother reading the book. The kick is that because all papers are just a few pages and contain just a few passages, papers arguing real thoughtful claims and papers arguing completely made up bs claims don’t look very different.

This is just all on the surface stuff. We haven’t even asked the most basic question: what does it actually mean to do literary analysis?

What is the task of literary analysis? Well, it usually involves trying to “prove” a claim about the meaning of a story. And to do this you need to “prove” something about the nature of the story. But there is one problem. The story is fiction. It doesn’t exist. So how can you prove something about something that doesn’t exist? A claim will be something like Rebecca is an angry person. But Rebecca doesn’t exist. Are you trying to prove that the author of the story imagined Rebecca as an angry person? No, because you only use evidence in the book. Evidence that the author probably did not explicitly think “I’m going to write this so that people will think that Rebecca is an angry person” and they may have chosen to include that passage arbitrarily over another.

Is the task simply to come up with a universe consistent with everything that happens in the book, in which Rebecca is an angry person? No, because you can make anything consistent as long as there are no explicit contradictions. You could come up with a consistent universe where Rebecca is a robot time traveling dinosaur with IBS living in the matrix.

Is the claim that Rebecca is an angry person in the universe consistent with everything in the book that is closest to ours under some well defined metric space> This is probably closer to what is actually going on but of course there is no way to define such a metric space and there may be no one universe “closest” to ours.

How about this? Let’s suppose that you are told that everything in the book did happen and that you are to make a wager as to whether Rebecca is an angry person (lets ignore the obvious fact that “is an angry person” is not even well defined). Then the task becomes stating which wager you would make and justify it. This is probably the closest thing as to what the task of literary analysis is. But if this is the case, why do we always act with certainty? What you are really saying is that there is a greater than 50% chance that rebecca is an angry person. But if this is the case, why is every paper on literary analysis always claiming that without a doubt, 100%, Rebecca is an angry person.?There has never been a paper whose claim is that there is a 70% chance that Rebecca is an angry person, but shouldn’t this be common given that you are arguing on probabilities off of incomplete information when there in fact do exist consistent universes where Rebecca is not an angry person?

So if this is what a person doing literary analysis is claiming, then what does relevant evidence look like? The information is just the collection of every passage displaying information about Rebecca. So let’s say you collect every bit of information and categorize it (this is also not well defined but it at least can be reasonably completed in theory)? Now, you must go through each bit of information, look at the total population and see what portion is an angry person. Then you can take the product of the portions that are angry, and divide that by itself plus the product of the portions that are not angry. A daunting task. But wait a minute, this is still not sufficient. We are ignoring correlation.

For example, suppose we have two pieces of evidence. 1) Rebecca likes apples and 2) rebecca believes that she is an apple tree. Let’s suppose there are a 1000 recorded people who like apples and there are also 1000 recorded people who think they are apple trees. 500 of the people that like apples are angry, 500 people that think they are apple trees, but suppose that these 500 people are the same. To recap, in our data set, we have 500 people that like apples, do not think they are apple trees, and are not angry, 500 people that that don’t like apples, think they are apple trees, and are not angry, and 500 people who like apples, think they are apple trees, and are angry.

angry apples

Under the method mentioned above, we would obtain that there was a 50% chance that Rebecca is an angry person but clearly if we combine the data we see that Rebecca is almost certainly an angry person. So we have to look at the data together. Okay, easy, we just analyze the sample of everyone who satisfies all of our evidence and see what portion is angry. The only problem is that no one is going to satisfy all the data about rebecca, because then they would be rebecca and the book would not be fiction. So how do we analyze the data? (This is an actual question. I am no statistician and am actually very curious about how an analysis would go).

Simple techniques don’t work. Even the dumbest technique of partition in largest sets with sufficiently large data doesn’t work. For example, consider the three characteristics, is a millionaire, is an evil genius, and can play the fucking piano. There is 1,000000 people in each category, and the intersection of any two of these contains 1000 people, but the intersection of all three is empty. So how do you group these together to analyze data. My best guess is probably a weighted sum over all subsets based on the sample size, but I can’t figure out any way to make this accurate or provide justifications.

Ok, so the task of actually making conjectures about the nature of a charter and providing rigorous evidence to support the conjecture is really difficult. So what do people actually do when they do literary analysis? They pick a few selected passages, point at them and say “look at this, my claim is right.” There could be a hundred other passages that completely go against what they said but as long as they have a couple pieces of textual evidence and declare that it supports their claim, everything is good.

So what is my point with all of this? I don’t actually have a point. I just started writing and this is where I ended up. But since I have been writing about dishonesty, I am going to be dishonest and try to find a point and act like it was my intention the whole time.

Here is my point. I find it annoying that all you’re told is in school is that you have to do literary analysis and the only way to do that is find quotes which prove your point. They never talk about what literary analysis actually means or why that is the way to prove your point. It is probably the best way to prove a claim but it seems like it would be better to let kids think about what literary analysis actually means and how one would go about supporting a claim about fiction.

They never even talk about why one would want to do literary analysis. They might say it strengthens your detective skills. But if this is the point, why don’t they just literally give kids detective work? They could find some account of what really happened and ask kids to make claims and then they could actually check to see if they were correct. Schools probably would say that it is not about whether the claim is correct, but whether you argued about it effectively. (I have been told this many times) But if that’s not dishonesty, I don’t know what is. A better answer might be that you are acting off of incomplete information and a claim might be good but is wrong because of other unknown information. Actually checking could make kids to results oriented. This is probably a good point, but if it is the case, I again ask, why do kids always have to write as though they are 100% certain of their claim.

Okay, here is my actual point. It is really dumb to make kids argue as though they are 100% sure of their claim when they are acting with incomplete information. I think this mentality of, “Act like you know you are right when you have no way of actually knowing” is super duper harmful for society. We see this happen all the time with adults and opinions and politics and economics and literary analysis in high school is likely partially responsible for this.  

Theres lots more to say on this topic but because I really want to get this posted, I’ll finish the post now.


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