Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Very Own Symonds Ryder Moment

A few weeks ago, this Monk and newly minted PhD received a letter from the Brigham Young University English Department:

The letter invited me to join the only university led by living prophets and to teach early American literature there, but there was one problem: my (now former) address was horribly misspelled. Actually, it's a small miracle that the letter even reached me. I asked myself--how could divinely inspired leaders get my information so wrong? Shouldn't they KNOW? And then I remembered Symonds Ryder (also, infamously, Simonds Rider), who was once placed in something of a similar situation. I quickly decided that maybe spelling wasn't the most important thing, even for an English professor, and suffice to say that I'm now happily on my way to BYU.


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your starving students yearning for knowledge . . .
Send these, the young, the media-addled to me,
I lift my books beneath the Y!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Befriending the Constitution

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirm that “[w]e believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (AF 12) and that “[w]e believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments” (D&C 134:5). This guaranteed exercise of basic rights, including the right to “worship how, where or what [we] may” (AF 11), is a necessary precondition for our support of government because “[w]e believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” (D&C 134:2). In other words, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that the primary function of government is the protection of individual moral agency, that opportunity which “the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Ne. 2:16). Civil government thus plays an important part in fulfilling the primary purpose for which God created the earth; as Lehi taught, “if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say . . . there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:13). Because this life is, first and foremost, “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24) by exercising our moral agency, “[w]e believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man” (D&C 134:1) so that those precious freedoms for which we fought against Lucifer in the premortal existence can be enjoyed during our time here in mortality.

Whether they live in Kansas or Cambodia, Paris or Paraguay, church members across the globe subscribe to these statements of belief. But for those of us who live in the United States of America, these revelations from the Doctrine and Covenants also urge us to reverence the political documents that made their publication possible. When an inspired Joseph Smith used the language of “inalienable rights,” he paraphrased the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The 134th section of the Doctrine and Covenants confirms the content and paraphrases the language of the Declaration of Independence because, as Latter-day Saints, we believe that the words of this document, and of the Constitution which followed it, were inspired by God. Joseph’s successor, President Brigham Young, explained that “The General Constitution of our country is good . . . for it was dictated by the invisible operations of the Almighty; he moved upon Columbus to launch forth upon the trackless deep to discover the American Continent; he moved upon the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and he moved upon Washington to fight and conquer, in the same way as he moved upon ancient and modern Prophets” (Just and Holy 17). Like the writings of ancient and modern prophets, the foundational political documents produced by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others of the founders deserve careful study because they teach true principles. In an 1839 letter from Liberty Jail, the prophet Joseph compared these foundational documents to canonized revelation: “We say that God is true; that the Constitution of the United States is true; that the Bible is true; that the Book of Mormon is true; that the [Doctrine and] Covenants is true; that Christ is true” (Just and Holy 5). The Constitution, Joseph Smith taught, is an inspired document which deserves the same regard we show to revealed scripture. So, while church members throughout the world have been instructed to support their local governments, church members living in the United States have a special obligation to learn and uphold the principles taught in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution of the United States because they teach true precepts which complement scripture and preserve our freedom to exercise moral agency.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus Christ explains to the prophet Joseph that “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.” “Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land” (D&C 97:8, 6). We, as Joseph’s brethren and sisters in the Lord’s church, are to “befriend” the Constitution, to act as advocates for its protection of moral agency and to support elected officials who will do likewise. President John Taylor, the third prophet of this dispensation, acknowledged the sad truth that the leaders and the policies of the United States may not always operate in accordance with the Constitution; describing the Mormon exodus to Utah, he asked, “When we left [Nauvoo] what did we leave for? . . . Was it because [the] institutions [of the United States] were not good? No. Was it because its constitution was not one of the best that was ever framed? No. Was it because the laws of the United States, or of the States where we sojourned, were not good? No. Why was it? It was because there was not sufficient virtue found in the Executive to sustain their own laws” (Just and Holy 27). This explanation for the failure of government makes our role as citizens and saints abundantly clear; having been commanded by revelation to “befriend” the Constitution, we are bound by covenant to elect representatives, magistrates, judges, and presidents who will sustain its principles and protect our ability to exercise moral agency.

For this reason the First Presidency regularly issues letters read from the pulpit at the beginning of sacrament meeting and before we each individually renew our covenants urging us to participate in the political process by voting for “leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest” (First Presidency Letter 9/22/2008). These letters invariably include a disclaimer noting that the church does not endorse individual candidates or political parties, and Brigham Young explains—at least in part—why this is so. He warns that “[i]t has become quite a custom, and by custom it has the force of law, for one party to mob another” (Just and Holy 14). President Young teaches that this spirit of partisan mobbing is degenerative, noting that “[w]hen the Supreme Ruler of the Universe wishes to destroy a nation, he takes away their wisdom in the first place, and they become insensible to their own interests, and they are filled with wrath; they give way to their anger, and thus lay the foundation of their own destruction” (Just and Holy 15). As a remedy, he exhorts the saints to ignore “political demagogues” and thus “put an end to party names, to party jealousies, and to party conflicts for ever” (Just and Holy 16). President Young called for the saints to condemn contentious, partisan politics precisely because, as Jesus Christ taught, “the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention” (3 Ne. 11:29). The First Presidency reminded church members during the 2008 United States presidential election campaign that “[p]rinciples compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties” (First Presidency Letter 9/22/2008), and given our collective commitment to “seek after” principles that are “of good report or praiseworthy” (AF 13), we have an obligation to consider the ideas of each candidate carefully and impartially without respect to party affiliation. We must follow the counsel of Brigham Young to “select the best man [or woman we] can find” for each political office because our obligation as saints is to support principles, not parties, to elect upright individuals, not outspoken ideologues (Just and Holy 16).

As we act faithfully in our duty to befriend the Constitution, we will further the work of the founding fathers, who drafted that document in order to form a “more perfect union.” We revere the Constitution but recognize that the it was no more perfect in 1789, when it sanctioned slavery, than it was in 2009 or today, as “conspiring men” (D&C 89:4) continually claim that the Constitution sanctions all manner of moral atrocities. President Young taught that “[t]he signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were inspired from on high to do that work. But was that which was given to them perfect, not admitting of any addition whatever? No; for if men know anything, they must know that the Almighty has never yet found a man in mortality that was capable, at the first intimation, at the first impulse, to receive anything in a state of entire perfection. They laid the foundation, and it was for after generations to rear the superstructure upon it. It is a progressive—a gradual work” (Just and Holy 17). Dear reader, you and I are those “after generations,” and, like the founding fathers, it is our work—our privilege—to actively promote the progressive perfection of the nation in which we live. If we are lucky enough to see the day in which that work is completed, we will rejoice in the blessings of a state free of political parties and all other social divisions. In that day there will be “no contention among all the people, in all the land”; there will be no artificial, man-made divisions of “rich and poor”; and there will not be “any manner of –ites” (4 Ne. 13, 3, 17).

We know that multiple iterations of this more perfect state have existed on the American continent in the past and that North America will again be the site of such a society in the future. We know that the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived in perfect peace and harmony, was located on or about the North American continent because when Adam was cast out of the garden he settled in Adam-ondi-Ahman (D&C 116). We know that the people of Enoch, who “were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness” (Moses 7:18), resided on the American continent because the prophet Ether foretells their return to this hemisphere (Ether 13:3). We know that the Nephites and Lamanites who lived in the years immediately following Jesus Christ’s visitation dwelt in perfect righteousness and happiness. Why have so many heavenly societies, societies that utopian planners have only dreamed of, made this continent their home? Because this is “a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord” (Ether 13:2). And because we understand the nature of this “good spot of ground . . . which [is] choice unto [the Lord] above all other parts of the land of [His] vineyard” (Jacob 5:25, 43), we understand that what has been in the past will be yet again, that that this land will yet live up to the founders’ dreams of a “more perfect union.”

The tenth article of faith proclaims that “[w]e believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory” (AF 10). The Lord sent the Holy Ghost to provide a vision of this paradisiacal future and thus inspire the exploratory journey of Columbus, the migration of religious groups such as the Pilgrims and Puritans, and the revolutionary pen of Jefferson, and it is my testimony that each one of us are privy to that same inspiration as we obey the commandment to befriend the Constitution and as we work to perfect the nation that safeguards our moral agency. When Columbus arrived in the Americas, he thought that he had located Eden, and he prophesied that a paradisiacal Millennium would be spurred on by his discovery. He declared that “Our Lord with provident hand unlocked my mind, sent me upon the seas, and gave me fire for the deed. Those who heard of my enterprise called it foolish, mocked me, and laughed. But who can doubt but that the Holy Ghost inspired me?” (Just and Holy xviii). Not the Latter-day Saints, who know that Columbus really had found Eden—or at least, as he supposed, that Eden had originally been located in the New World. When John Winthrop led the first group of Puritans across the ocean to form a colony at Massachusetts Bay, he urged them to imitate the charity of Adam and Eve and to make their new home a second Eden “like a watered garden” (“Modell of Christian Charitie”). Through the grace of God, he and those with him understood the paradisiacal potential of this new land. When George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building, he described the workers who would build that edifice of national government as “bees bestowing their industrious labour on this second Paradise,” the United States (1793 newspaper article). Whenever men with pure hearts have been willing to listen, God has revealed to them his paradisiacal plans for this land, and He will likewise bless us with an understanding of “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (AF 9) that are yet to come if we earnestly seek to keep the commandments which he has already given us and befriend the Constitution. In the words of our sacred hymns,

“Then we’ll surely be united,
And we’ll all see eye to eye.
Then we’ll mingle with the angels,
And the Lord will bless his own.
Then the earth will be as Eden,
And we’ll know as we are known.” (#48, verse 4)

All Just and Holy citations are from the anthology of the same name, in which Ralph Hancock has collected prophetic ruminations on the Constitution and American government.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grading the 2010 AP English Language Exam: Sample Essays

This is the fifth part of a five-part series on the mysteries and realities of the AP English Language Exam and its grading process. For more on the marathon that is AP exam grading, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

You’re probably sick of hearing about the AP exam—but before I go, I want to give you a look at the single worst essay I graded during my time in Louisville and a piece of the best writing on humor I’ve ever seen. First the (worst) essay:

“Many people try to be comedy, act funny, and even draw humorists things but personaly that is just a gift that you have to be born with.

“If Mr. De Botton wasn’t a natural this process was very hard for him probably due to the fact that he has to try to impress people and a lot of people get intimated by that. There are also risk of being talked about and laughed at and even dead silences. So Mr. de Botton probably went through a lot to be as well known as he is now.

“In conclusion success doesnot just happen over night it takes time endurance and patients to make it happen.”

Yikes—wretched writing that has little, if anything, to do with the given prompt. Suffice to say that it earned a score of "1".

Now, an excerpt from the man who is probably my favorite living writer of prose, a mere half paragraph that helped me understand the 1970s—and humor itself—better than any other piece of writing I’ve ever read:

“If we are conducting our lives in the usual fashion, each of us serves as a constant source of embarrassment to his or her future self, and by the same formula, all ‘eras’ can be made to look ridiculous in retrospect. But the seventies have always been prone to more ridicule than their twentieth century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (Annie Hall, Nashville, the Me Decade, ‘You’re So Vain’). It required no retrospection for the occupants of the zone now understood as the seventies to acknowledge the goofiness in all their pieties and solipsisms, and it is a mark of our own naïveté (at least) to suppose straight-faced young tax attorney going out on a Saturday night in 1974 wearing platform boots, glitter mascara, and his hair combed up into a two-foot Isro, for example, did not realize that he looked pretty silly. It’s just that looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not an inevitable result of the taking of risks. [201] The sense of liberation that resulted from such risk-taking, however conventionalized or routine it became, was felt for a little while to be well worth the price in foolishness. We are crippled in so many ways today by the desire to avoid fashion mistakes, to elude ridicule—a desire that leads atone extreme to the smiling elision of political candidates and on the other hand to the awful tyranny of cool—that this willingness to be foolish is hard for us to sympathize with or understand. In this age of, we have forgotten the seventies spirit of mockery that smirks at the pretensions and fatuities of others in a way that originates with and encompasses ourselves.” (200-201)

If you, like me, are a post-seventies being, I bet you understand the seventies better now. Not that I'd expect a "9" essay to be this good--but you can bet that this particular passage from Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs (a fantastic, if occasionally R-rated, read) would make the grade. Out of the approximately 2,000 essays I graded, I think I probably gave out 10-15 grades of "9" and another 50 or so of "8." So approximately 3% of the essays I read deserved a cumulative score of 5 on the AP exam, which means that the Monk's official nephew, who just got word that he scored a 5 on the Language exam, is officially top 3% material--not that I needed the AP to tell me that.

Hope you enjoyed the blunders of student essays as much as I did; this is the last post on AP exams, and we're back to my regular eclectic fare in the coming days and weeks.