Monday, November 12, 2012

You or Me or I?

            “Nietzsche’s No Better Than You or I” was not the title of my latest paper for Intro to Philosophy of Art.  Yet, when I opened the version of my document that included my professor’s comments on the piece, that’s exactly what it read.  My title was, “Nietzsche’s No Better Than You or Me.”  The intention of the correction was clear; the classic rule dictates that the word “than” is a conjunction, linking two independent clauses.  Therefore, a verb is implied, so the statement must read Nietzsche’s no better than you or I (am), instead of Nietzsche’s no better than you or me (am).  “Me” is an objective pronoun and cannot be the subject of a verb.
            This seemingly trivial correction assumes that I was using “than” as a conjunction.  It ignores the possibility that I was using the word as a preposition.  A preposition is used to describe an object in relation to the subject.  For example, the tiger is behind the door.  In this case the tiger is the subject and the door is the object.  Likewise, the word “than” can be used as a preposition.  In my title, Nietzsche acted as the subject and “You or Me” as the object of the preposition.
            Of course, the perceived error in my title likely had little or nothing to do with my final grade.  In fact, there are many grammarians who still argue that my professor’s correction was exactly right.  These grammarians are prescriptive—they see their way as the right one and believe that everyone should agree.  These same people scold the use of “them” as a singular pronoun, in place of him or her, ignoring its obvious advantages (intentional ambiguity, or disregard for sex) for the preservation of an outdated standard.
            There is nothing inherently wrong with prescriptivism.  It is a way of ensuring unity and creating a standard amongst bodies of people.  A particular field or school of thought will likely want to use the same terms in their discussions.  How would our doctors be able to function in unison without a common jargon?
            Nevertheless, in a learning environment—particularly one that focuses in the liberal arts—prescriptivism seems counterproductive.  How can students search for meaning in their studies if their teachers are forcing them towards a singular truth?  Shouldn’t students strive to find their own answers to the questions they ask?  In a progressive culture, teachers act as guides to their students’ educations.  They do everything in their power to give their pupils the necessary tools and resources to learn and grow.
            At Park, my teachers wanted me to succeed.  When I was struggling they gave me pointed critiques and advice.  They looked for meaning in my work rather than condemning any thoughts just for being different from their own.  I cannot overstate how much I took for granted their mantra of positive expectations.  The Park philosophy couldn’t be more accurate in its assertion that students will not reach their potential if their teachers do not believe in their success.
            Getting back to my paper on Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s No Better Than You or Me was by no means the best essay I’ve ever written.  It certainly wasn’t the worst either, but my grade said it was.  I don’t claim to be an expert on the philosophy of art.  There were problems with my essay and the arguments I made and I’ll admit that.  My frustration, however, comes from my feeling that my professor didn’t want me to succeed.
            I have a very hard time getting motivated to improve my work when I feel like my teacher couldn’t care less whether I do well or not.  What kind of message does it send to a student when their title—a sacred space for the creative individual to express himself even in the most serious of assignments—is corrected for word choice?  It certainly doesn’t send one of positive expectations.  I started reading the comments and I knew I was doomed.
            The truth is that I’ve been spoiled by my high school experience.  At Park, I had the opportunity to learn from a score of teachers who truly valued their students and understood how to treat them in a way that is conducive to education.  In the end, the teacher can only do so much.  Ideally, the teachers are doing as much for their students as they possibly can.  But in reality, sometimes the students need to take matters into their own hands.