Our Moral Responsibility to Diverse Friendships

Analysis of Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity by Sara Goering written for my senior year Advance Topics in Philosophy class:

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In her work on Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity, Sara Goering argues that many societal and moral goods come out of the diversification of friendships (401). In this paper, I will argue that we have a personal and societal responsibility to pursue diverse friendships with others of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and perspectives because of the intellectual and moral growth they induce. True moral failure does not arise out of unsuccessfully seeking diverse friends, but the absolute rejection of diverse friendships and intolerance for others with different personal views.

In a society of various political view, ethical beliefs, ideas, and experiences, we have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but the rest of our shared community to gain new knowledge towards self-improvement. Diverse friendships are the most powerful vehicle for this by first and foremost revealing our internal biases (401). As individuals, we have a natural inclination to show favoritism towards experiences we engage with, also believing that we are and justified in doing so. Having close friendships with those who have vastly different backgrounds forces us to confront these biases head on and actively question the justification for our beliefs, rather than remaining intellectually stagnant by reinforcing shared perspectives in similar friendships. Even in the instances where our beliefs are in fact valid, the process of being challenged by other perspectives and having to reevaluate our ideas through discourse with close friends is incredibly powerful towards refining and developing support for our beliefs. These beliefs that we refer to are not merely debating one’s preference for one type of candy over another. Instead, they primarily center on challenging moral perspectives and actions. In this way, diverse friendships successfully further a core value in Aristotle’s perfect friendship by holding friends to mutual moral improvements through ongoing discussions and evaluations that would be impossible in the friendship of two individuals with identical moral perspectives and ideas.

One concern that emerges however is the seemingly nonsensical expectation of diverse individuals to become friends in the face of severe or even uncompromisable differences. Indeed, we must set limits on the maximal amount of diversity possible in a friendship if we are to consider it a responsibility. Individuals on opposing ends of a spectrum when it comes to politics or ethics are capable of becoming friends. However, the nonnegotiable required commonality between two individuals must be shared respect for the other person and their own beliefs as well as a shared pursuit to grow in individual moral goodness. Under these conditions, a Christian and an Atheist can comfortably befriend one another despite their disparity in religious beliefs given demonstrated respect for the other’s perspective, but an abolitionist should have no expectations to pursue a diverse friendship with a KKK member who no intention to develop morally (405).

The degree to which not befriending a friend is a moral failure ultimately depends on the assumption that morality consists of seeking moral self-improvement and morally true beliefs. While this ethical theory is not universally shared and can be considered as a personal responsibility, instances of true  moral failure  include completely shutting oneself off from any and all diverse friendship or purely treating friendships as a means to an end as this implies that one is incapable of respecting people and people with different perspectives, a form of discrimination and a clear violation of our commonly accepted social ethical standards.

Goering, Sara. “Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity.” Sara Goering, Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity – PhilPapers, 1 Jan. 1970, philpapers.org/rec/GOECOF

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Persepolis: The Story of Contesting Narratives

Analysis of Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi written for my junior year AP English class:

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi takes place during one of the most tumultuous periods of Iran spanning the overthrow of the Shah, followed by the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. In this novel, Satrapi visually highlights the dynamic clashing of narratives between a young Marji and those of the Islamic revolutionaries, as they gather and consolidate power to crowd out all narratives but those of their choosing. As the story progresses, the growing maturity in Marji’s artistic style and use of shading in the visual graphic medium shows not only Marji’s physical growth, but also, more importantly, her heightened ability to create, judge, and wield narrative. As Satrapi draws her childhood against an extensively dense black background symbolic of the narrative suppression nature of the Islamic Revolution that she is necessarily etched into, we see in her visual and narrative style a counter-discourse to the visually figuratively monochromatic darkening of Iran under the Revolution coupled with emphasis on the power of storytelling and responsibility of readers to assert narrative control by passing judgement.

In her graphic novel Persepolis, Satrapi makes extensive use of solid black space in her panels with accents of white to form her visual narrative. The pervasive ambient dark background sets the tone of Satrapi’s criticism of the Islamic Revolution for the treacherous landscape it has created as the backdrop of her childhood and of the rigid, overly legalistic ideology it upholds, which only allows for narratives that fit under strictly defined categorical constraints as predetermined by revolutionary leaders. Throughout the novel, nearly every panel with a prevalent black backdrop is intended to describe a shift in the Islamic regime’s rhetoric, increasingly restrictive regulations, or the imminent fear of death due to the raging societal conflict. For example, when Marji learns of the rise of the Shah’s even crueler son, the broad panel conveying this scene is a dominating shade of black (27). Likewise, with the death of Uncle Anoosh, impending bomb attacks, and the increasing severity of the war, Marji is depicted as drifting in a void of blackness, analogous with her sense of despair from being surrounded by the destructive nature of the dark landscape symbolic of the new Islamic Revolution.

Furthermore, the visual black and white contrast in Persepolis supports the idea that the Islamic imposed narrative at the time of Marji’s childhood is necessarily split into two categories of distinct color because of the way in which leaders and followers of the Revolution see the world: rigid, fixed, with necessary truths, and without any opportunity to dispute or hold a different opinion. Satrapi’s sweeping use of black space offers a critique of the misguided radical nature of the Revolution and the permeating impact it has on not only the entire landscape of Iran, but also narrative conflict between the state and the individual.

Children, in their pure innocence, tend to instinctively believe and imitate the adult influences in their society. In the context of a misguided and immorally legalistic government, this results in detrimental ramifications for the youth in society. Marji, as a small child, is unable to fully comprehend the significance of the Revolution going on around her. Thus, she turns her experiences into role-playing games of violence and torture, even going so far as to harass another child (45).

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Living in a harsh society as a young child who lacks the skills to wield and discern narratives, Marji can’t help but be influenced and drawn into the dark societal ideologies and structured narrative of black and white. This is further supported visually in the way black color from the landscape leaks into each person that Satrapi draws. Her style of drawing does not apply the use of clean and precise lines. There are noticeable gaps in the drawing of individuals throughout the novel where the black of the background permeates into the image of the individual and their narrative system. The series of panels where Marji’s mother rebukes Mehri and Marji for taking part in the demonstration show the black background behind Marji is also the same blackness that is a part of her hair and clothes (39).

The boundaries of Marji’s image disappear and her narrative merges with the backdrop of dark revolutionary ideals. This then argues for the extremely pervasive influence and narrative suppressing power that Marji is up against. Children do not posses the skills to analyze implicit meanings or complex narratives beyond what they hear or are told by adults considered to possess wisdom. Furthermore, it is even more difficult in this severe environment to retain one’s own narrative given that societal leaders will not hesitate to suppress any differing narratives or ideologies through violence.

In order to push back against the inflexible, legalistic, black and white rhetoric of the landscape, Satrapi argues for the importance of educating oneself on how to maintain control over individual narrative through telling one’s own story, listening to the stories and experiences of others, and passing judgment on these stories. This is the same vehicle that allows Marji to become more adept at controlling and creating her narrative under her increasingly severe living conditions. Near the start of the novel, when Marji’s teacher and textbook endorse the Islamic narrative by saying “the King was chosen by God,” she confidently believes it (19).

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Additionally, in retelling the events of her early childhood, Marji’s inability to understand the true meaning behind stories and sayings is demonstrated visually by the childish and unrealistic graphics she uses. Her artistic immaturity is most noticeable in scenes depicting trauma, suffering, and pain. When Marji explains how she learned about the fire at the Rex Cinema and how the police restricted anyone from rescuing those inside, she depicts the people torturously burning to their deaths in the theater as ghost shaped wisps of flames floating away from the cinema chairs towards the exit (15). The unrealistic and cartoon-like imagery that Marji uses to communicate these parts of her narrative is consistent with the fact that these concepts are incredibly difficult for a young child to grasp and she is still unequipped to handle them.

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However, as the novel progresses and Marji hears more stories from her parents, Uncle Anoosh, and the political prisoners Siamak and Mohsen to name a few, she grows in her skepticism of Revolutionary ideologies and improves her ability to visually discern narrative outside the stiff black and white categorical constraints imposed by the revolutionaries by exploring the technique of shading. Marji’s improvement as a consumer of stories and narratives apparent in her sharp ability to see through faulty narrative. She no longer trusts her textbooks or her teachers with their inconsistent rhetoric (44). Furthermore, she can no longer be lied to or shielded from the harsh reality of the Revolution by her parents (68). Increasingly, Marji learns to self-reflect, question societal slogans such as “to die a martyr is to inject blood into the veins of society” that attempts to justify blood being spilled and builds up the confidence up against adults in authoritative positions (144, 146).

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Her growth in narrative control further supported by the accompanying improvement in her visual rhetoric and the more realistic manner of conveying her story. The skill that particularly lends itself to allowing Marji to portray her narrative more realistically is her use of grey shading that is used in the panels of young boys being blown up with keys around their neck and of the building rumble of the bombed neighboring building (102, 141).  As Marji listens to more stories and makes judgements about narratives, the world becomes slowly more shaded and less dominantly black and white, indicative of her ability to see the possibility of a grey area and other opinions and narratives distinct from the ones imposed by the government. The sharper shaded in images align with Marji’s recognition that everything is not as clear-cut and necessarily fixed in binary categories of right or wrong as the landscape around her would like her to believe.

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Persepolis is a coming-of-age story that simultaneously commentates on the importance of stories in shaping, giving meaning, and providing authenticity to experiences through both textual and visual observations of Marji’s growing maturity. The period of childhood is the process of creating your own narrative, your own voice, and learning to make the right decisions distinct from parents or a society controlled narrative. Satrapi’s goal in writing Persepolis is to reclaim an Iranian narrative overly dominated with connections to “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism” in hopes that readers, having learned of the story of her childhood, can make informed judgments on the Iranian narrative (2). Therefore, when Satrapi calls the narrative contest between the state and self to the attention of readers, she is reminding readers of their role in the creation of meaning from the stories and narratives they are reading by being active, skeptical, and sympathetic consumers of narrative, which is exactly the opposite of what the Revolutionaries want. It is the responsibility of the reader to be a judge of narrative and figure out the coherence between competing and incompatible narratives. Reading Persepolis, reading stories, then becomes, in a sense, a counter-revolutionary act. Satrapi brings forward the fact that life, not just in tumultuous times like a radical nationwide revolution, but in general, is a contest of narratives and narratives matter because it gives coherences to our sense of self.

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Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. 2000. Pantheon Books, 2004.

The Limited Power of Rhetoric 

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Richard III written for my junior year AP English class:

One of the prominent overarching themes in Shakespeare’s Richard III is the power of language and the use of language as a weapon to achieve political power. Throughout the play, Richard is able to manipulate characters and events within the play specifically through his eloquence and ever evolving persuasive techniques. His eloquence and ability to deflect suspicions and accusations enables him to manipulate, confuse, and control those around him for his malicious desire to attain the Crown. This is consistent with Cicero’s description of how, “eloquence without wisdom is often most mischievous.” Richard’s tactics work on nearly everyone, those who think of him as a friend or foe. However, through the progression of the play, Richard’s rhetorical power to disguise his corrupt intentions begin to weaken and his true nature becomes increasingly apparent to those around him. Friends abandon him, traitors materialize, women fail to be wooed by him, and he struggles to justify his own actions to himself. It is not reduced skill in the language of his speech, but his staggeringly unavoidable accumulation of abominable crimes that is responsible for his loss of persuasive rhetorical power and ultimately his demise.

At the beginning of the play, when Richard is still in the midst of planning his schemes and has yet to betray or murder anyone, his dialogue with Lady Anne displays his exceptional talent with words. Anne, despite having very good reasons to despise Richard for killing her husband Edward and father-in-law King Henry VI, succumbs to his charming flattery and mind games. Richard approaches Anne with a plan to praise her beauty by referring to her as a “sweet saint,” “angel,” and “divine perfection of a woman” (1.2.49,74-75). Identifying the source of her resentment, he initially tries to blame King Edward, claiming “I did not kill your husband…he is dead, and slain by Edward’s hand” (1.2.92-94). Seeing this tactic is of no avail as Anne stands her ground, Richard then attempts to twist the facts, arguing that he helped send Henry to heaven, “for he was fitter for that place than earth” (1.2.107-110). Moreover, he shifts the guilt on Anne herself. Using one of his common tactics of flipping the accusation back on the accuser to deflect suspicion, blame, and responsibility off of himself, Richard blames Anne for the death of her husband  by saying, “I stabbed young Edward, but ‘twas thy heavenly face that set me on” (1.2.182-185). One last act of feigned submission, repentance, and undying love by offering his sword to her is all it takes to sweep Anne off her feet and accept his ring. Richard has a particularly deadly talent for identifying the mental weaknesses and desires of others and changing the form of his rhetoric in order to target these aspects. In successfully convincing Anne, a woman he widowed, to turn her attitude around completely from spewing hateful words to agreeing to marry him, Richard demonstrates his powerful way with words and vast arsenal of persuasive techniques, including pinpointing another’s weakness before manipulating it.

In contrast to Richard’s ability to trick every person around him with the exception of Margaret in the first half of the play, towards the second half, Richard becomes increasingly incapable of manipulating those around him to do his bidding. This is not due to any diminished rhetorical skills on his part, but because of his blood stained reputation and piles of bodies he has incurred, including savagely killing his own nephews, which takes away from the dominance of his eloquence and persuasion. The dialogue that occurs between Richard and Queen Elizabeth in Act IV Scene IV demonstrates that Richard’s way with words and language skills not have suddenly disappeared, but there exists another reason to account for Queen Elizabeth not falling prey to any of his maliciously persuasive rhetorical techniques. This scene shares similarities with Richard’s first encounter with Anne, as in both situations, he is striving to convince the women to help him with his master plan. Richard uses similar techniques to convince Queen Elizabeth to have her daughter marry him as those used against Anne. First, Richard asks for forgiveness by acknowledging the evils he has previously done, “Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes… to make amends, I’ll give it to your daughter” (4.4.292-295). He promises to right old wrongs by marrying her daughter and giving back the lineage of the crown to her grandchildren. He appeals to the human desire for glory by arguing that “she [Young Elizabeth] shall be a high and mighty queen” and the human desire for love, promising that “I will love her everlastingly” (4.4.347-349). Furthermore, he assures Queen Elizabeth that such a marriage would “infer fair England’s peace by this alliance,” hoping a prospect of peace will sway her to handing her daughter over for the greater good of England (4.4.333). Unfortunately for Richard, things do not go as planned as Queen Elizabeth retorts with her witty interruptions and sarcastic responses suggesting he gift Young Elizabeth the bleeding hearts of her slaughtered brothers. Queen Elizabeth is not swayed or influenced by Richard’s manipulative rhetoric. It is evident from their discussion that it is not Richard’s reduced rhetorical skill that results in his failure to convince Queen Elizabeth to accept the proposed arranged marriage of her daughter.

Instead, the glaringly significant change occurring between the scene with Lady Anne and that with Queen Elizabeth is all the blood Richard has spilt, tarnishing his once blemish free reputation. This consequently renders his persuasive techniques obsolete in the face of his heinous crimes. Nearly everyone Richard interacts with before the execution of Hastings and the silent slaughter of the two princes buys into his comforting and reassuring words promising no foul intent because Richard has no history of treachery that would lead one to think otherwise. In the case of Lady Anne, while it is true that Richard is guilty of killing Edward and King Henry VI, this occurred during a war which has now ended. Death is a natural fact of war and a possibility that one accepts when stepping out onto the battlefield. So, Richard having killed Edward and Henry is a simple choice of kill or be killed and not at all a surprising act, allowing his reputation to still bear the image that he paints of himself as an innocent and remorseful which allows him to convince Anne. Similarly, Richard’s proclamation of love for Clarence leaves his brother completely oblivious to Richard’s true intentions to eliminate him and usurp the throne. Clarence, despite being confronted by his dream in which Richard pushes him overboard and being explicitly told by the murderers, “you are deceived; your brother Gloucester hates you,” remains steadfast to his belief in Richard’s love for him (1.4.231). Indeed, Richard is powerfully persuasive and manipulative, but Clarence also has little reason to think any differently of his brother when Richard has a spotless record void of any deceitful activity against their family. Unlike her husband and Clarence, Queen Elizabeth does suspect Richard’s true desires and confronts him with this, arguing “come, come, we know your meaning…You envy my advancement… I have too long borne your blunt upbraidings and your bitter scoffs” (1.3.73-104). However, even for Queen Elizabeth, some distasteful words against her are not reason enough to completely distrust Richard, a family member, and his reassuringly sympathetic rhetoric. Richard is initially able to trick Clarence, Anne, and Queen Elizabeth, as well as King Edward and Hastings, because of his eloquent language coupled with an untainted image of innocence.

By contrast, after Richard has murdered everyone obstructing his path to the throne, a body count of at least five, his rhetoric, despite still being as eloquent as it was from the beginning, is insufficient to convince Queen Elizabeth to follow his wishes, and for Buckingham and Stanley to stay loyal to him. The commonality between these three characters is that they all know Richard brutally ordered the death of Hastings, the two young princes, and very possibly more. Buckingham, as well as Stanley, later on, being Richard’s right hand men, are privy to his murderous plots. Queen Elizabeth is also well aware of Richard’s crimes as she had her suspicious from the very start and he restricted her from visiting her sons in the Tower before having them killed. Knowledge of what Richard has done and is capable of allows Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham, and Stanley to be immune to the persuasive powers of Richard’s language. Richard is no longer able to control the three of them regardless of how incredibly talented he is with words because eloquence has its limitations. At this point, he cannot even control himself. Richard struggles to justify his own villainy to himself when his dreams become haunted by eleven different ghosts of people he has directly murdered. These ghosts remind him of all his treacherous actions and the large pile of bodies that he is responsible for, rendering his own rhetoric powerless against himself as he asks, “What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by…Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am…I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not” (5.3.192-195 ). His speech is punctuated with question marks and contradictory responses, indicating his wavering confidence. Action, specifically a large accumulation of evil action, negates the most mischievously eloquent twisting of words, and even the innermost conviction in one’s own villainous acts.

Shakespeare’s Richard III presents audiences and readers with a cautionary tale consistent with Cicero’s warning about the dangerous and mischievous nature of eloquent rhetoric when it is unaccompanied by moral wisdom. Little can be done against such powerful forms of persuasion, but there is still hope yet. False truths, lies, and treacherous crimes will ultimately reveal themselves and, when they do, the power of eloquence will be diminished, offering an opportunity to fight back against the power of convincingly constructed language.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. Ed. James R. Siemon. London: Bloomsbury Arden-Bloomsbury, 2015. Print. 

“Cicero: De Inventione.” Robert Anderson (1805-1871). N.p., n.d. Web.

Problems of Panopticism in Schools and the Modern World 

Analysis of Panopticism by Michel Foucault written for my junior year AP English class:

In an effort to normalize the scoring of papers from English students, a project was initialized in 1923 to set up a standard for grading. Given a variety of sample essays that demonstrated the paper equivalent of a score from 1-10, the goal was to produce a standardized guide for ranking the quality of papers as determined by experts in the field of English. Even today, the vast majority of schools continue to carry on this system of assigning scores to students as a means of comparing performance and assessing the degree to which they are reaching the standards set in place. This constant process of surveillance, assessment, and classification of students in schools through a rigid scoring system supports Michel Foucault’s argument of a disciplinary modality that orders human multiplicities through the control of “production of knowledge and skills in school” existing in our fundamentally panoptic society (303). The generalized influence of panopticism as more than an architectural structure is not a fully overbearing disciplinary mechanism and has its limits, but still remains at its core “essentially non egalitarian” and unhealthy for society (305).

First, a thorough analysis of the four sample essays and their respective scoring is needed to determine the grading criteria that the essay judges are choose to value and dismiss. The first sample essay, receiving the lowest possible score of one, is riddled with spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors as well as unclear objects and subjects doing and receiving the action. The student writes, “When I chewed tobacco and they found it owt,” we see that the subject ‘they’ is never specified. The use of ‘it’, supposedly referring to chewing tobacco, is not necessary, and the simple spelling mistake of the three-letter word ‘out,’ and the consistency of the mistakes suggests they are not careless, but large educational flaws from not having learned proper grammar mechanics. However, this essay does have redeeming qualities that were not valued by the particular rubric it was scored against. The significance of the lesson described still comes across to the reader regardless of the grammatical mistakes. Moreover, learning not to chew on tobacco is a very important to learn because tobacco and smoking poses a health risk to not only yourself but others around you. The second sample essay receives a higher score of five because despite a few spelling mistakes with ‘conjure’ and ‘remedy’, the structures of the sentences are complete, correct, and coherent. However, the student does not address the prompt and goes of on a tangential anecdote. Even though the essay is lengthier, a lot of word space is occupied with simplistic and unnecessary explanations of how to open a door, ultimately resulting in this essay having the second lowest score. Sample essay three, compared the the previous two has better formed sentence structures and no spelling mistakes. The student also uses more complex vocabulary such as ‘indulging’ and ‘commenced’. The lesson learned is very clear due to the very abrupt, but concise, short sentences. The essay is rather lacking in content and the phrasing, while not wrong, could be improved by refraining from mentioning “such things… and other good things” since ‘things’ is a vague reference. Last, but not least, the final sample essay, achieving a perfect ten checks off all the boxes the graders have in mind, possessing the qualities of an exceptionally well structured essay with impeccable mechanics and complex sentence structures. This essay also responds to the prompt directly and clearly. (See Appendix)

Through a more detailed evaluation of the implicit reasoning behind the scoring rubric for the sample essays, it is evident that the particular judges involved in creating a normalized grading system valued grammar skills, spelling, and mechanics above all else as essay scores were consistently lower the more grammatical mistakes a student made. Another criteria of scoring with secondary importance is how well the student responded to the given prompt, which resulted in sample essay two receiving the second lowest scores for failure to do so. From there, what differentiates a perfect score from an average one is word choice, sentence structure, quality of response to the prompt, length, and detail as determined by these English grading experts. Alternative orders of ranking could be given if the judges decided the significance of the type of lesson learned by the student was the most important quality, which is a fairly reasonable criteria from the explicit prompt to “write an essay describing how you learned a lesson.” In this scenario, where judges focus on the significance of learning to live a healthy life, the sample essays should be rearranged to allow sample essay one, not smoking tobacco and preventing chances of lung cancer, to have a highest score ahead of essay three, not upsetting one’s stomach by overeating, followed by essay four, and finally two. Although grammatical mistakes can interrupt the flow of an essay, it poses no threat to the reader’s understanding of the student’s retelling of a lesson they learned. There is great value in encouraging and promoting students to take care of their own health that the purely grammatical rubric which is applied to these sample essays does not consider.

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Relating the normalization of the grading system back to Foucault and his criticism of all-controlling pervasive panoptic techniques, both the 1923 schools and modern standardized testing system exhibit the function of panoptic disciplinary mechanisms in pushing for a grammatically correct writing. The architectural model of the Panopticon as envisioned by Jeremy Bentham consists of a singular central tower overseeing all the surrounding prisons cell encircling it. Inspectors can look out of the tower and constantly supervise everyone, but cannot be seen by the prisoners. Unsure if they are being observed, prisoners will strive to behave at all times for fear of being watched or punished, getting “caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearer” (288). In the same way panopticism functions to reform prisoners, it also serves to supervise and instruct schoolchildren, confine the uneducated, and put idlers to work (292). The Panopticon is just a synonym for the current structure of the educational system. In schools, as demonstrated by the sample essays, student work is constantly supervised by teachers and administrators under restrictive regulated environments. Additionally, students do not know who is judging their essays and have limited visibility in this sense, only knowing that it will be analyzed and looked over by a certain few authorities. These expert authorities use the normalized ranking system to subject millions of students to supervision and pressure to write and test well, much like prisoners compelled to behave properly at all times. The structure and goal of the modern school system, a fundamentally valuable institution in our society, aligns closely with that of the Panopticon.

Foucault argues that the goal of the panoptic disciplinary mechanisms is to make “it possible to increase the useful size of multiplicities,” but at the expense of “the nonreversible subordination of one group of people by another” (304, 305). We see this asymmetric suppression by panopticism demonstrated by the ranking of the sample essays. The lowest scoring student was most likely to have come from a low income background as demonstrated by his vocabulary including ‘popo bush,’ poor spelling indicating a lack of education and educated parents, and accessibility to tobacco. In comparison, the third student with an average score was from decently well off enough to splurge on eating an extensive amount of junk food, and finally the fourth student was so wealthy that they explicitly expressed their failure to understand and respect poorer students. The fact that higher scores were consistent with economically better of students indicates that the rubric is designed to favor and promote the wealthy, while holding back, demanding, and enforcing particularized writing improvements from the less fortunate, aligning with the goal of panoptic power to maintain control for producing skillful individuals. This supports Foucault’s claim that the panoptic mechanisms of discipline are “essentially non egalitarian and asymmetric” (305). The scores given do not represent arbitrarily unimportant values, but have a commanding role in controlling a student’s future and forcing them to increases their writing skills and general useful contribution to society or risk facing disqualification and invalidation of equal opportunities. Those who abide by and learn to conform to the system are reward through high scores, recognition by elite college institutions, which is in turn extends to recognition by powerful and high paying companies. On the contrary, panopticism insidiously disadvantages those who do not or can not met the criteria of the standard set in place.We see this control and inequality of opportunity manifest even in the current school system as individuals that never learn to write grammatically or don’t test well on standardized exams face known repercussions in the form of low scores, low grades, restricted college options, and reduced job opportunities that serve as the huge motivation for students to enforce themselves to study hard, abide by the rubric set, the arbitrary grammatical conventions, and the educational standards expected. Indeed, panopticism has its limits. Panoptic power can control the penalties one faces in choosing not to abide by the system, but the disciplinary mechanics do not extend to the degree of forcing everyone into reaching the standards set in place. Refusing conformity to the rigid structure determined by only a select few individuals in power provided recognitions of the disadvantages that result is possible. For example, the fact that a 12th grader in 1923 had such poor grammar mechanics demonstrates that the panoptic is not as all powerful and controlling as it appears. Student essay one exemplifies the possibility to make it through the entire academic school system, yet still not adapting to proper spelling and grammar rules, ignoring all imposed consequences and attempts by the experts to force students into a normalized mold along the way. However, even for the minority of individuals who escape the control of the panoptic society, the pervasive nature or panopticism in schools with its classifications and fixed standards of success determined by judges is unfair and fundamentally discriminatory against those who wish to freely express themselves, choose a different life path, or just disagree with arbitrary and unnecessary grammatical mechanics taking precedence over the value of learning to pursue a healthy lifestyle. Schools, traditionally know as a place of education, is like a panoptic prison, using the instrument of discipline, consisting of “hierarchizing individuals” and if necessary, “disqualifying and invalidating” poorly performing students for a means to a particular end, in this case, shaping children to speak and write in a standardized academic ways deemed acceptable by invisible experts in positions of power (305).

Panopticism in schools, essay grading, and standardized testing is just one example of an institution taken over by this efficient but prejudice form of discipline. Our society today is fundamentally panoptic. Foucault argues the panoptic principle derived from the architectural structure of the Panopticon “must be understood as…a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men” (293). The panoptic model exists anytime a form of behavior is imposed on a multiplicity of individuals (293). Schools rooted in foundations of panopticism only represent the tip of the iceberg. Adults who emerge successful from a panoptic school system that rewards those who obey and conform, are provided the opportunities to live decently well off where they will either follow one of two paths. They will either continue following the disciplinary mechanics which they are accustomed to and continue benefiting from the non egalitarian condition of Panopticism, or more importantly, rise to become the “experts in normality” that dictate and enforce the standards in schools, workplaces, prisons, or any environment where “one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed” (293). This results in a ceaseless cycle of panopticism and its increasingly insuperable asymmetries spreading all throughout society without end in sight. Panopticism is so foundational to our societies and the institutions built upon it that the path minimize the control the structure possesses remains unclear, but getting out of the hole our flawed society has dug us into begins with taking advantage of the limits of panopticism and being resilient in the face of the pressures to conform.

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. By David Bartholomae and Tony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. Print.

 

How I Learned a Lesson (1923)

SAMPLE 1

When I chewed tobacco and they found it owt they whipped me for about fifteen minnutes with papa bush. they broke ten switches out on me. but i kept on chewing. they found it out and my papa and Mamma whipped me for abowt twenty minnutes and learn me a lesson.

Score: 1

SAMPLE 2

It is said that experience is a dear teacher and that is one of the lessons I learned along with the real lesson.

One day I came home from school (as I have been in the habit of doing for the past eleven years) to find the house locked. When our house is locked up and the family go out there are just two ways I know of to get in. The first and by far the easiest is to get the particular key that belongs to the lock in the front door and after inserting it in the lock, turn it, push forward and the door will come open. If a key cannot be obtained there is just one way left, as I know of (and I have had years of experience) and that is to get a good heavy brick and heave it thru the window. Not that I have ever tried this method but it’s the only sure remidy left as I have tried all the others my brain could conjur up.

Score: 5

SAMPLE 3

Two years ago I worked for a meat shop. Every day I spent a good deal of money on such things as soft drinks, ice cream, and other good things. I did this all summer. My mother warned me against it, but I kept indulging in these things.

By the time school commenced I began to have stomach trouble. Mother made me quit eating anything I wanted, and kept me on a diet. Finally I was cured of the trouble. Since then I do not “eat drink and be merry” as much as then.

Score: 6

SAMPLE 4

When I sat down to think over the experiences of my life that have been profitable to me my memory wandered back to one of the big lessons I learned when I was yet a little child.

I was in the sixth grade in a little country school. Here I mingled with children from all stations in life and made friends with them all. There was, however, something insincere with my friendship for the poorer children. It was due, I now believe, to a feeling of superiority over them. I resented the ravenous manner in which they ate the lunches I divided with them; I detested their furtive glances when we talked; and I could not tolerate their tendency to lie. In all, they had an uncouth bearing that I could neither understand nor forgive.

That spring our teacher invited me to go with her while she took the enumeration. After visting a number of homes we came to a place called Grub Hollow where several of our school patrons lived. In one little shack we found the family huddled around a little stove, the walls and floors bare, and everything most squalid and depressing. In another, a dirty, miserable hovel, we found a blind father, an indolent, flabby mother, and three mangy children. Finally we found a family of fourteen living in one room amid unspeakable conditions.

On our way home Miss Marxson was strangely silent, and, child that I was, tears stood in my eyes. I had heard “the still sad music of humanity,” and it had given me a new understanding. Never again did I feel haughtily toward those children; and all through life that experience has modified my judgment of human conduct.

Score: 10

The Adventures of Pinocchio: A Boy’s Transformation

Analysis of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and Rebecca West’s afterword written for my sophomore year English class:

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Although “attracted by order, discipline, and structured educational practices,” as West writes in her afterword, Carlo Collodi was highly suspicious of the programs initiated after the unification of Italy “with the goal of ‘making the Italian people Italian’… because he saw them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom” (166). We see Collodi’s commentary on the politic turmoil of his time and this same problem of conformity represented in the Blue Fairy’s role in advocating for Pinocchio to become a real boy. By strictly laying out a dichotomy of what is expected of a proper boy, the Blue Fairy symbolically personifies the form of Mother Italy at the time Pinocchio was written. This allows readers to understand Pinocchio’s final transformation as a necessary, but complete trade-off wherein his individuality, inherent wildness, and adventures are sacrificed in order to conform to the demands of the real world and a new Italy. Pinocchio’s transformation is not a reward so much as it is a material manifestation of losing what makes him distinctive and becoming a puppet to society.

From the very beginning, Pinocchio’s natural wildness stands out as a strong symbol of uniqueness and freedom. There is very little aboutPinocchio that is normal. Originally as a piece of wood, he possesses a natural preexistent personality and the ability to communicate with Mastro Cherry. He treats Geppetto as his father, not in the typical biological sense, but as the creator of his wooden limbs. Furthermore, despite being a wooden puppet, he is able to walk, talk, interact on his own, and behave just like a real boy, possessing the instinctive human behaviors of greed and laziness, and driven by impulsive decisions. His strange existence as a living puppet represents the opposite of what is normal or expected in society. Unfortunately, it is these same qualities and poor judgment that leads him into dangerous situations. Throughout the story, we see that the harsh landscape of Tuscany, a place driven by hunger, brutality, greed, and social injustice every which way you turn reflected by the struggles and captors Pinocchio encounters. As a result, in order to survive in such an environment, Pinocchio must grow up and grow up quickly by getting rid of his bad habits. The Blue Fairy assists him in this way, but in doing so he must completely forgo all the qualities that once made him so unique.

The Blue Fairy plays a very maternal role, as Pinocchio repeatedly refers to her as his mother, because she guides him, gives him strict rules, and provides him protection and shelter. Yet, there is still a difficulty in understanding her to truly be a mother in the normal sense. Instead, we can better understand her role as a representation of the state of Italy, the mother country, a guardian and advocate for order and obedience. The Blue Fairy doesn’t literally end up joining the family with Pinocchio and Geppetto because even though she acts as a mother, she is ultimately only a figurative one. In the story, she’s both a part of the landscape and somehow transcendent of it with the ability to appear and grow up suddenly. The Blue Fairy reward him with material security and stability, but is at times very harsh with him, repeatedly pretending to have died in order to test his character development. Her job is to change him, forcing him to go to school and choose a trade, using emotional violence when necessary. Italy needs for its children, especially those in danger of poverty, violence, and child trafficking to work and become well-educated as a part of its efforts towards unification. However, as Collodi argues and examines regretfully, the sacrifices are freedom and childhood in order to serve the greater good of the nation.

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This tension between obedience and individualism allows Pinocchio to be read as “a tale of both transgression and the necessity for conformity” (West 166). The Blue Fairy presents it such that having fun and being mature are two mutually exclusive things. There is no middle ground. At one point, she distinctly lists the desirable traits of the proper boy she wishes Pinocchio to become: obedient, studious, hardworking, and honest. There is no indication of a possibility for Pinocchio to be both his adventurous self and diligent in school. When Pinocchio is repeatedly faced with the decision to either play hooky or go to school, to go on an adventure or go home, it is always presented with the consequence that by picking one, he must give up the other. We see this mutual exclusiveness even more clearly when Pinocchio must choose between going to school or giving up his precious spelling book in order to gain admittance to the Fire-Eater’s marionette show. The Blue Fairy requires total conformity with no room for compromise. Eventually, Pinocchio does submit. Thus, he is saved from the dangers of the real world and rewarded by being turned from wood to flesh and as a result “when bad boys become good and kind, they have the power of making their homes gay and new with happiness” (160). The result of being obedient and following the Blue Fairy’s command is much like the way in which the Italian government promises to bring folks out of poverty if only they follow the rules. Collodi is not against education for the betterment of living standards, but he argues that such change leads to unification, but at the expense of individual liberty.

The entire story has slowly built up to the last scene in which Pinocchio is finally transformed into a real boy. His transformation is not one of metamorphosis, where Pinocchio’s puppet body alters into a human body, but instead he separates from his puppet host and moves into an entirely separate body. Such a change allows the limp wooden puppet shell to still remain because it serves not only as a reminder of what was lost in the transformation, but also of the clear difference and distinct separation between the Pinocchio that once was, and the Pinocchio now. We even witness Pinocchio saying to himself with great content: ‘How ridiculous I was as a marionette! And how happy I am, now that I have become a real boy!’” (160) This line comes as quite a shock primarily because Pinocchio completely rebukes his former self. There is no sense of emotion or pain of something lost in his perspective. There is mentally nothing left of the old Pinocchio. Becoming a real boy was not a reward for being obedient, but a necessary transformation as a result of Pinocchio’s character change which preceded his physical change. Thus, Collodi argues that the physical change is simply the next step as a result of his complete personality transformation and that it is the inevitable consequences of the sacrifices that we must make to leave the freedom and lawlessness of childhood and conform to the wishes of the Blue Fairy and the country.

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Most ironically, in his transformation from puppet to “real boy”, he becomes a puppet to society, controlled by the rules that the Blue Fairy has set in place. Once a symbol of individuality, after his transformation, Pinocchio simply becomes like any other regular real boy. As a marionette, he was able to do everything a real boy could and was at his most human in character. The Blue Fairy had to forgive him over and again because of his very natural human urge to stray towards hedonism. She taught him the “right” way to behave like a “real” boy. When in reality, being perfectly obedient and going to school is not how real boys act. In the story, we encounter Lampwick and the boys who bullied Pinocchio ditch school. Being perfect is not a quality of being a real boy as the Blue Fairy describes. It is only natural for one to make mistakes. Pinocchio undoubtedly argues for an nostalgia of the carefree and rebellious past of childhood. Collodi looks wistfully at the lost energy of childhood and the wildness of his natural state that Pinocchio has to let go of. In his transformation, he passes up the adventurous life of a unique, water breathing, talking wooden puppet with a durable body to the drab new reality of a “real boy.” This is representative of the passage from youth into adulthood and the readiness to accept the responsibility and integrate with societal expectations. Children are often compared to puppets because they are not yet “real people”. Compared to the life of an adult in society with its limits, restraints, and pressures of unification, the child’s world seems delightfully uninhibited and unfettered. But as Collodi suggests, perhaps it is indeed the adults in who are the real puppets.

The great success of Pinocchio and its widespread influence in film and other adaptations is because it examines the universal issue of the distinctiveness of human nature whilst posing the question of finding a balance between unification for the sake of living a life better off and keeping freedom and individuality.

Collodi, Carlo. Pinocchio. Trans. Geoffrey Brock. New York: New York Review of Books, 2009. Print.

West, Rebecca. “The Persistent Puppet: Pinocchio’s Heirs in Contemporary Fiction and Film.” Forum Italicum: A Journal of Italian Studies (2006): n. pag. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Franz Kafka’s Before the Law

Analysis of Before the Law by Franz Kafka written for my sophomore year English class:

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Many have tried to interpret “Before the Law” and many have failed. However, to their credit, it is not because they have not read closely enough into detail, but because Franz Kafka crafted his parable in such a way that a definite meaning cannot be derived from it. In “Before the Law,” Kafka purposely designs the parable to be ambiguous with the intent of inviting readers, who attempt to grasp the meaning, to an endless reading and rereading of the parable. He does this in order to draw us into the position of the man in the parable so that we can better experience the futility in our persistent human nature of trying to find meaning in parables and examine our way of thinking and approaching parables through making connections between the vehicle and the tenor.

“Before the Law” is most commonly interpreted as either a critique of an impenetrable legal system or of the man and his inability to be proactive and make his own decision to cross the gate. Both of these interpretations can account for many of the metaphors in the parable, but never the entire metaphorical system. There always seems to parts that just do not quite fit no matter how plausible the interpretation appears to be. We are constantly in search of connections between the vehicle and the tenor, asking ourselves, “What does the gate, but the lack of a physical barrier convey? If the doorkeeper is the vehicle, what is the tenor?”  Even when we settle on a potentially plausible interpretation of the parable, it is not evidently clear why one interpretation is the more likely than the other because Kafka simply chooses not to give us enough information to gain certain knowledge. “Before the Law” is constructed in such a way that it appears to have an underlying meaning and moral message, but one that always eludes the reader simply because there is actually no real meaning. What would have happened if the man had gone through the gate? Would the doorkeeper have stopped him, or would he simply go through? Kafka never tells us. In rereading this parable and reevaluating our interpretations we must question the textual evidence or the deliberate lack thereof. He purposely intends it to be that there is no one reading that can be pinned down and argued for over all other readings and does so because it is the most effective vehicle to encourage skepticism and communicate the idea that there does not necessarily have to be meaning in parables.

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This uncertainty of the meaning behind “Before the Law” also allows Kafka to play with our frustration and desire to discover the meaning of the parable, and to similarly put us in the same position as the man in the parable. The experience of the man in the parable, seeking access to something that is hidden or nonexistent, is meant to parallel the very real experience of the reader.  By interpreting “Before the Law” as a parable written to have no meaning, we suddenly seem to find the metaphorical system and the meaning behind it. The Law, covered in a veil of mystery, represents the meaning of parables themselves. It is not clear why the man travels to and seeks admittance to the law. Like many things in the parable, we are not told. He just does. The man from the country represents us as readers. Similarly, we naturally want to gain an understanding of the parable. However, understanding parables is not as simple as reading it and arriving at the meaning instantly. We have psychological obstacles in our way, whether this be our feeling of intimidation of the parable or fear of interpreting it incorrectly and waiting for someone to tell us how to approach it, Kafka specifically writes to emphasize the lack of a physical barrier, describing the doorkeeper as only standing to the side and not directly in front of the gate. Most importantly, in the last scene, Kafka discourages our persistent and unwavering motivation to find meaning in parables, where we see ourselves, represented as the man in the parable who ends up wasting his life trying to gain access to the law. Not only does he end up dying, but also dies without the knowledge of what lies beyond the gate. Thus, according to Kafka, we should give up trying to understand the parable lest we end up having, metaphorically, the same fate as the man in the parable.

However, the paradoxical nature of this interpretation is that if we had not tried to understand the parable in the first place, we would have never understood his argument. Furthermore, if we had not acknowledged that his parable had no meaning, we would not have found the most plausible interpretation of “Before the Law”, that it is a parable examining the way in which we try to interpret parables. It appears that we have been drawn into a never-ending cycle of circular logic because we cannot support the uninterpretable nature of the parable with an interpretation of the parable. The absurdity of the parable itself seems to even have the capability to disable our ability to prove that his parable is a parable on the absurdity of parables, and this is precisely the point. This reveals that even when we make potentially accurate statements about the nature of this parable we still cannot completely pin down the meaning. Kafka has constructed a world in “Before the Law” that is so incredibly absurd that we cannot know with certainty what the man should or should not have done. This then becomes the tenor, the experience of absurdity, of not knowing, and the entire parable itself becomes the vehicle for the tenor. Even now, we cannot escape this paradoxical interpretation that Kafka has brought us to. However, had he not placed us into the same position as the man in the parable to really and truly experience the futility of trying to find meaning in parables, we would not be capable of grasping the purpose of “Before the Law,” which is exactly to demonstrate the whole conundrum of endless rethinking and reevaluating that the reader can never exhaust because there exists no tangible meaning or metaphorical connection within the parable, and thus we should not expect to find it in the first place.

Kafka, Franz. “Before The Law”. Textbook. 3rd ed. Robert Scholes, Nancy R. Comley, Gregory L. Ulmer. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 131-132. Print.

Original Creative Parable with Analysis

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Creative parable prompt written for my sophomore year English class:

— Parable —

Jig woke up to the same puzzling world that he had always lived in. What he knew was little. He touched the piece next to him. “What shape are you?”

“The same as you,” was the reply.

Frustrated, he touched the piece to his left. “And what shape are you?”

“The same as you,” it replied.

“If you are the same as me, then who am I?”
“You’re one of us.”

Discontented, Jig ventured to the middle of the bridge over the chasm that had always consumed his curiosity. Far off in the distance Jig felt the vibration of movement. Curious, he ventured over the bridge and further away until he suddenly bumped into something. “Ow!” it cried out.

Confused, Jig yelped and touched the piece he had bumped into, “What shape are you?”

“Not the same as you, who have wandered far from home. What brings you out here? Surely your kind has not finally decided to join us? We have long been here in the land outside the box in hopes of solving the chaos, rearranging…rearranging…rearranging…solve…solve…solve” the piece mumbled, “and certainly without the assistance of your kind.”

“Is rearranging all you do?” asked Jig, but the piece had already walked away still whispering to himself. “There’s no going back for you now, attend to your place*… solve… rearrange…”

Jig continued further in the direction of the unknown, running into other pieces and having exactly the same conversations. Months passed and Jig’s search to find his place seemed futile; he wondered to himself why everyone believed that rearranging would solve the chaos. As Jig wandered away to the farthest corners of the chaos, his path slowly became one leading up a mountain. When he finally reached the top he was blinded by a white shining light. Standing before it, he saw a myriad of images that seemed to move in exactly the same way he did. Turning away from the reflective light, he looked down the mountain and saw the moving pieces of images, his kind across the divide and finally understood the chaos.

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— Analysis —

In this parable, the puzzle pieces exist in a 2D world. Their only method of identification is by touch. A 2D world has no depth and works as a metaphor for representing those who lack understanding, maturity, and depth in their character. When Jig finally realizes that the common societal method of rearrangement is wrong, he is transported to the land of three dimensions*, where he literally gains a new perspective with the ability to see on top of pieces resting in 2D, and metaphorically, by achieving a new understanding of how to solve the chaos.

I chose puzzle pieces to represent us as humans because they have the attribute of fitting in and having a designated place in the bigger picture. The entire unsolved puzzle represents problems in our world and in order to solve these problems we must unite together, physically, and metaphorically in terms of a goal, instead of having a divide between different groups. One group itself cannot solve the puzzle.

For shape and configuration, there are often duplicates of the same type of puzzle cutouts and in 2D there is nothing differentiating them. We too, often struggle with finding our own identity. However, we are special in a way that isn’t always obvious to us, like how the pieces couldn’t see the beautiful images on top distinguishing each one of them.

The concept of the shuffling of pieces represents the ways we trick ourselves into believing that we are actively looking for different solutions when in reality we are reusing the same ideas and being blinded to the thought that a different approach is needed.

The mirror at the top of the mountain represents clarity, not only of Jig’s own identity, but of the recognition that the solution to the puzzle also cannot be solved without all the puzzle working cooperatively in society to achieve and reach the end goal of the solving of the chaos in this world and our world.

Lastly, parables themselves are just like puzzles, where the reader must piece together metaphorical hints to find the meaning and as demonstrated in this parable successful interpretation requires that we avoid traditional thinking and take on a different perspective.

*Inspired by the novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott.