My undergraduate composition courses had a Come-to-Jesus moment scheduled for the Monday of the third week of class, after I had corrected two sets of essays. That third Monday morning, here's what I said:
"I've seen enough of your work so far to realize that three of you are intelligent. Fifteen of you are not. For the rest of the semester, I'm going to devote most of my time and energy and wisdom to the people here who don't have to be told the same thing twice, who don't turn in three pages when I assign five, who don't miss class or spend time with electronic devices while I'm talking. The rest of you should get smarter if you want to join the conversation."
You may not consider this the sort of moment Jesus would want to beatify, but Jesus never had to teach composition for a living. If he had, the Sermon on the Mount would have been a lot shorter. The meek would have been replaced by good writers. So would the mourners, the merciful, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the persecuted. A hunger for righteousness and purity of spirit are already characteristics of good writers, and Jesus, having taught composition, wouldn't have wanted to be redundant.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Christianity has remained a cult all these years, and a tiny one. But literate.
I digress. People did want to join the conversation in my classes. I found that things went better when I concentrated on teaching the best students and letting the rest keep up as they could. Everybody's thinking improved. Everybody's ideas were more complicated and less didactic. The questions we were able to consider lacked easy rote answers. Not least, I wasn't bored, because I was in dialog with people who wanted to learn and think and were willing to work to achieve both.
Not-so-smart students, accustomed to class discussions plodding along at their own slow synaptic pace, woke up to the new regime, put away their video games and cellphones, and turned out not to be so intellectually challenged after all. By the end of the semesters most students had realized it's good to work hard and have interesting conversations with your professor, and the intelligence you wish you had isn't always limited to the intelligence you start out with.
"People get smarter when they work at it," I'd tell my new writers, as they went off to history and philosophy and science classes armed with short, simple sentences, concrete nouns, action verbs, concise paragraphs and a deep suspicion of false metaphors.
I also told them, "If you're desperate to join an elite, consider becoming part of an intellectual elite. Joining political or financial elites will cost you your soul. Becoming an elite athlete will initiate a losing battle against time, one that will be over long before you are, unless you take cancer-causing steroids. But being smart is something you can get better at until your brain shrinks to the size of a walnut--which it will, if you live long enough. But there's evidence that it won't shrink so fast if you've worked at being smart all your life."
What has prompted this memory is another losing battle--not against time, but against illiteracy. Without going into dreary details about the quality of writing in our culture, I can say that the battle I fought in comp classes has been lost. The idea of focusing on the smart people in your audience and leaving the rest behind doesn't go over well these days.
Nor does the idea that if a given group of people--Treasure Valley residents, say--take an IQ test, half of them will score below average. If you believe a test can gauge intelligence, that test is going to indicate that half the people are smarter than the other half.
More bad news: The smarter half is losing its smarts. If I judge from the comments of former colleagues, high-school graduates do not know how to write when they come to college, and almost all first-semester classes are remedial.
A long time ago I wrote for Skiing Magazine. It was a good gig. They sent me to Canada and New Zealand and to weird weekends in Aspen and Sun Valley, and I wrote long, follow-me-beneath-the-surface articles for their target demographic, 21- to 35-year-olds. I was a careful witness, as all I had to sell was my perceptions, and they had to be accurate, acute and interesting.
Then a change of editors, and an editorial meeting where they changed their demographic to 18- to 24-year-olds. All of a sudden my nuanced 2,500-word articles were obsolete. In their place were photos captioned with the words, "Dude!" and "Whoa!" and my favorite, "Rad-iculous!" Instead of going beneath the surface of skiing--and there's a lot there, as any visitor to Tamarack will intuit--Skiing became all surface, with heavy doses of advertorial-quality photography. I suppose that's why they turned down my proposed article about putting on my 25-year-old alpine equipment and free-racing one of my old buddies on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol down Baldy.
"Dude," said my 20-something editor, "We're trying to get people to buy new equipment, not use their grandfather's."
I didn't point out that my article would delve into issues of over-hyped technology, of getting old in resort towns, of the tendency of resorts to be as susceptible to entropy as their clientele. Those were interesting ideas, but I wouldn't have been able to make my new editor see that. He hadn't been in my classes. Even if he had, I might not have noticed him.