I was accepted to an experimental program for my freshman year at City College of New York, with our “campus” in the CUNY Graduate Center. We had the very best lecturers, one of whom taught English Composition: FIVE days a week for the entire academic year!
You probably think that there can’t be a worse college experience than that. I certainly did. In fact, it was quite painful – but “boring” certainly not. Indeed, looking back on this after five decades, it probably was the most important course I took in my whole academic career – not merely for the skills it gave me, but for its life lessons as well.
On the very first day of class, Mr. Gordon C. Lea (a well-tanned Brit) asked us to sit there and write a two-page essay on anything we chose, as long as it contained an argument for or against something. We handed them in before the class was over. By the very next day, he had already marked all thirty essays and handed them back in class, one student after another in alphabetical order. Being a “Wilzig,” I was going to be one of the last to receive mine. As the “returns” went along I began to hear sobbing in the classroom; several students were silently tearing up and others had gone white in the face. With growing apprehension, I waited for mine to be returned.
I had always known how to write. I liked words, I had a “Germanic” disposition for grammar, and my elementary school and high school made us sweat “book reports.” Moreover, I was chosen to be one of the editors of my high school yearbook…
“Wilzig!” he called out. I went up to Mr. Lea and took my paper without peeking at it until I returned to my seat, although out of the corner of my eye, I could see a lot of red markings. Then I looked directly: the grade was C-! I was shocked. Later I discovered that this was the second-best grade in the class!!
Here was the first life lesson: failure is a relative matter. Relative to one’s expectations (subjective), and also relative to what others have done (objective). Which is more important? As we go through life, most of us tend to focus on the subjective aspect: how did we do compared to others? Where does this leave me on the social (or professional) totem pole? But that’s not the way to go through life, because we can never be the “best” at anything, or (in almost all cases) even close to the best. Yes, it pays to have an external benchmark, but this should be set by what each of us is capable of reaching. In short, success in life has to be based on some inner-directed criterion.
“Most of you came here thinking that you knew how to write. Hopefully, now you understand otherwise. But…” Mr. Lea stopped for dramatic effect, “by the time this course is over, you WILL know how to write – as long as you put in the effort. And I’m going to give you an incentive for that: your final grade will not be an average of all your paper grades throughout the course but rather it will be based on your degree of IMPROVEMENT from now to then.” Hearing this, I didn’t know whether to be sad or happy: sad, because as one of the “top” scorers, I would have less “improvement” to make; happy, because I was closer to an “A” than the others.
That was life lesson number two: in the end, success should be measured more by the process, by the effort, than the final product. Of course, if we finish the “job” with failure, that’s not enough; however, we shouldn’t measure our success only by what we accomplished, but also (primarily?) by how well we did relative to our ability.
As the year went along, almost everyone in class made great strides in improving their writing skills. At the end, we arrived at the final exam – only to have one last surprise waiting for us. The main essay question was this: “In 500 words or less, make an argument to convince me [the teacher] that you should receive the course grade that you think you deserve.”
Life lesson number three: technical skills are useless without accompanying cognitive skills – and even more so, without a clear goal. I am sure that when you read “English Composition” at the start of this essay, you said to yourself: grammar, spelling, punctuation… Of course, those rudimentary skills are the foundation for good writing, but far from enough. On top of that, we need three additional elements: the ability to organize our thoughts into a meaningful whole (“composition”), the ability to think logically and persuasively (“rhetoric”), and the ability to know what you want to achieve i.e., where you want to “go” with what you’re writing (“goal-orientation”). In fact, these should be undertaken in reverse order: First, where am I heading here? Second, how can I organize the argument? Third, what specifically should I argue and how to put it into words?
I argued in my essay that I deserved an “A,“ and that’s what he gave me for the course. I was more pleased by this “A” than any other I received in college precisely because I had to “sweat bullets” to achieve it.
That was the main (fourth) life lesson I “processed” successfully: no pain, no gain…