Updated: Aug 19, 2019
“For the disease, which took first the head, began above and came down and passed through the whole body; and he that overcame the worst of it was yet marked with the loss of his extreme parts; for breaking out both at their privy members and at their fingers and toes, many with the loss of these escaped; there were also some that lost their eyes” –Thucydides describing the ancient Athenian plague
The modern mind is a withered object akin to a body devastated by plague. Though the victims have the appearance of health, and the appearance of speech, what has been affected by this plague is an inability to think. The mind’s capacity to think is a skill that must be acquired through rigorous effort; it does not come as automatically as vision. The true tragedy is that the Athenians described above enjoyed time as a healthy human, whereas victims of our modern plague live a lifetime without a healthy mind. It is not merely a peculiar trend that so many people are preoccupied only with Facebook and cellphones, but a necessary condition of a mind incapable of higher thoughts. This is no denigration to technology, for the grand minds who create great products do not take into consideration the likelihood that some consumers will beat their phones together and expect the result to be fire.
It is no coincidence that a vast majority of college students are not only incompetent to work at any job besides fast food, but also unable to think long enough to imagine a life-long career. This is due to the fact that college students are famous for an inability to write. There was a time not long ago when writing well was an unshakable standard even to attend college, let alone to graduate with honors. Today, college graduates are no better, and usually worse, having attained acute anxieties about writing, than a high school dropout 100 years ago.
The words of thinkers like Thucydides are quoted for millennia, because their ideas are clear and their words imaginative. We tend to believe that professional writers have a special innate ability gained by some mysterious connection to an unknowable power. But we also often quote another class of individual, too. Famous playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, immortal industrialists like John Rockefeller and Steve Jobs, great coaches like Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, movie producers like David O. Selznick, or conquerors like Julius Caesar are noted for their resonating deeds and lasting words. What makes men like these unique is that they are not merely men of action, but deep thinkers, who knew how to formulate their ideas in writing. Within the craniums of these men was not rot but healthy, functioning minds. Writing is not only for writers, but also for doers. To write is to think clearly, enabling one to act purposefully.
Today, college graduates are no better, and usually worse, having attained acute anxieties about writing, than a high school dropout 100 years ago”
Whence came the plague that withered the minds of many? The fundamental causes are deep, cultural and widespread. Withered like a tree rotted from the inside is the knowledge that writing is a process. Though we stare at a screen and expect to be struck by magic, it does not happen; though we know some proposal needs improvement, we cannot do it; though we feel that the endless stream of emails we send is writing, working on anything longer than a few paragraphs freezes our minds and causes nervousness. All this engenders the view that writing is not a skill to be acquired, but an innate magic for the lucky few. One carrier and symptom of this disease can be seen on almost every college campus in the form of “Writing Centers.” Professors, who may or may not know the principles of proper writing, send their students to these centers, which consist of student mentors who certainly do not know the principles of proper writing. Their expertise is not in guiding a young mind through the phases of writing, but in knowing the proper margins and fonts for a cover letter.
Since writing is a process of formulating, reformulating, and then submitting a writer’s thoughts to questions of logic, a set of principles or guides to this process is necessary. It is no different than needing a set of guidelines to build an aircraft carrier. If anyone attempted to build such a behemoth without the guidelines that have been developed step-by-step through the millennia, undoubtedly death would follow. Yet, students with genuine needs of completing a writing assignment are directed toward these centers, where a mass of random information is thrown at them and little or no proper technique can stick to the doe-eyed college freshman with a paper to write. These innocents make the assumption that these writing centers must be filled with knowledgeable experts who can explain in simple terms what is wrong with a given essay. Instead, students are shown long lists with “advice” that is likely to overload a young writer’s circuits; it should be no wonder that their minds distort and collapse as a body would after becoming infested with infinitesimal bacteria carried by rats.
Here a University of North Carolina Writing Center attempts to give advice to plague-ridden students in desperate straits: