AP Lang and the Journey of Self-Esteem

In reflecting on my time in AP English Language and Composition, I am most-immediately presented with the question of what I have achieved. What has changed, or improved, that would have otherwise stayed the same had I not taken the course?

I cannot say that the answer is obvious. Unlike math or science, there aren’t specific things I can point to as evidence of my learning. I’ve learned how to take a two-sample z-test for proportionality, and I have learned that work is a change in energy. But what, exactly, have I learned in AP Lang?

Coming into the course, I had rather specific expectations of what I would get out of the class: I would learn how to write different types of letters, essays, and research papers. The belief was that I would finish the year with the knowledge of the formula that makes writing of any type “good.” Well, I’m still searching for that formula, as is (I’ve come to realize) everyone else who has ever held a pen.

But the year has by no means been a waste of time.

This class has made me come to the conclusion that the ability to write well is neither talent nor luck. I have been forced to consider how it is that I now get the highest marks in an AP English class when just four years ago I was considered to be among the worst writers in my grade. I have come to the important realization that any improvement my writing experienced was the result of an active effort. Be that writing more, reading more, or just plain thinking more, I did something to improve; my abilities did not drop out of the sky.

The above is the single most important thing I learned in this class — it transcends the ability to write well. I, as many of you know, have very low self-esteem regarding my ability to achieve anything, and especially my ability to improve. In recent months, this low view of myself centered around my ability in mathematics; I felt as though I had lied to myself regarding my potential in math, and felt that I was actually quite stupid. However, just as it did with its reminder of my improvement in writing, AP Lang also reminded me that I once improved a lot in math. If my writing could continue to improve this year, then why should my math skills fail to do so in the next?

It is this that I am most grateful to AP Lang for: it has given me a framework around which to begin the long journey of overcoming my insecurities. No, my low self-esteem will not disappear overnight. But, at the very least, this class has enabled me to consider the possibility that effort is more important to success than inborn talent and, what’s more, that I am no exception to that rule.




A Great Teacher

From the perspective of a student, I would say I am most grateful to those who have altered something fundamental about how I think. It has often been the role of the teacher to get his or her students to think, or to present a topic as interesting, or (very rarely) alter a student’s worldview. I consider myself lucky in having had such a teacher.

Mr. Burchell,

You have taught me longer than any teacher I have ever known. I still remember my first day in your class. We were both new to Rosslyn and, it seemed to me, equally uncomfortable with our new surroundings. And while your class was the most stressful of my freshman year (due to loud classmates), it certainly made me reconsider my position on mathematics.

That is probably what I am most thankful for — you altered my view of math. A year before your class, I despised math and could never see myself associated with it; I had neither the ability nor the interest to pursue math. A year after first entering your class, I was seriously considering a career goal change from the humanities to STEM.

Unlike previous teachers, you made math make sense. Not only did you go through each lesson slowly, explaining why that assumption makes sense or why this formula works, but you also packed your lessons with semi-related stories that were meant to illustrate the practicality of what you were teaching. Your stories of grain silos to show why V=1/3πr^3 is important, or of how you were once a corn salesman to illustrate the idea behind random variables in statistics never failed to entertain.

With regards to this year, in particular, I must say that AP Statistics has been the most eye-opening course you’ve taught me. While not as big a revelation as algebra making sense for the first time, statistics has certainly changed how I think about any data-supported claim. For example, I never considered the possibility that opinion polls are statistically irrelevant because they use voluntary response sampling, nor was I ever aware that “random” choosing was not sufficient for a truly random sample.

Lastly, thank you for encouraging my academic pursuits, both this year and in the past. As someone who is very insecure about his abilities in math and science, it has been most reassuring to hear how confident you are that I will succeed. And thank you once again for writing the QuestBridge teacher recommendation for me; it was no doubt crucial to my acceptance.

I wouldn’t be who I am today, or who I intend to become in the future, without your guidance.

∃ (Student) ∈ (All Your Students): (Student’s Worldview Altered)


The Cost of Advancement

The role of government in providing for its citizens has been a controversial issue in US politics. Welfare and healthcare are by far the most important issues when it comes to government involvement. And yet, there is another issue that, while not as prominent in public discourse, is especially pertinent to me and many of my peers: the affordability of higher education.

Image result for chart of college cost in the us

Public higher education, the traditional avenue to a college degree for those unable to afford a private college, is now out of reach for most people (unless, of course, they’re willing to go into debt). And the costs, as can be clearly seen, show no sign of dipping.

Now compare this to, say, Germany: tuition is free for all undergraduate students at all public universities. Remaining fees are minimal. The question that immediately comes to my mind is obvious: why don’t Americans do as the Germans?

Opponents of free higher education will argue that such a move is financially impossible. With a national debt of over $21 trillion, the last thing the federal government needs is to spend more; this will presumably weaken the economy further.

Or will it?

According to one study, people who go to university earn $17,500 more than those who finished their education in high school (and that number is only for those between the ages of 25 and 32). Higher education, simply put, means higher salaries and steadier employment. Education is the means by which the poor may elevate their condition. It is the great equalizer, to loosely quote educational reformer Horace Mann.

Education, as has been demonstrated, means more pay, and more pay means more spending. One person’s expenditure is another’s income, increasing his or her income in turn. Should this other person also get a college education, then his or her spending will increase for the same reason, thereby increasing the income of yet another person. This self-reinforcing progression is what improves the social and economic health of a country; a nation of college graduates is likely to be a nation of high standards of living and economic growth.

Of course, this cycle takes time to run its course — time that will see the national debt skyrocket if free education is to be made government policy. In light of this reality, I propose a compromise: free public education for those below a certain income, no federal financial assistance for those above a certain income, and lowered costs for those in between.

The reasoning behind this is straightforward. The truly poor are those most in need of social elevation; they are the ones who will benefit most from a college education, while also being the ones for whom it is most unattainable. The rich, on the other hand, can comfortably afford the most expensive colleges. Sixty thousand dollars a year won’t drive you into poverty when earnings are in the six digits. Last come the middle class, whose contribution must vary depending on income. They can afford higher education, though likely with varying degrees of financial burden — a burden that will be minimized proportionally to income so as to be fair.




That’s Not Funny

Entertainment is any activity that is done for the purpose of temporarily forgetting about life’s problems. It takes different forms for different people. For my mother, entertainment is checking her weekly horoscope. For my brothers, it’s playing on their iPads. For me, it’s anything that doesn’t overly strain my mind or body.

Is entertainment dangerous and can it ruin society?

The answer depends entirely on what kind of entertainment we’re talking about; specifically, what is presented as entertainment.

Entertainment should not function as a substitute for serious discourse, nor should serious discourse be presented as entertainment. I, of course, echo Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman examined the effects of television on serious discourse in the 80’s. Television, he explained, was a medium of entertainment and could not, therefore, function as a medium for, say, politics or religion. Today, with entertainment being available at the touch of a screen, Postman’s concerns are more relevant than ever.

Social media is, in a sense, entertainment. It is available to anyone with an internet connection and gives instant access to information and communication, making it an excellent medium for wasting time without worries. The problem with social media is that it is unhealthy for serious discourse.

Consider modern American politics and news.

I keep track of several news pages, including Fox News, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. Each of these pages provides the news in the form of a post. Sometimes, a post is just a picture with a headline. If you’re lucky, you may even have a link to a 300-word article. The problem here is clear: there is nowhere near enough information. The people visiting these pages are no more informed than they were before, but they sure feel like it. And that’s the danger: people feel as though they’re well-informed and fully equipped to engage in serious discourse when they are not.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen such “experts” having heated debates in the comment sections. The fact that news agencies often have political leanings doesn’t help things at all; loyal visitors have their beliefs affirmed by a headline, and dissenters who have read a different headline are verbally set alight. There is no discourse and there certainly is no argument.

You may think that this is harmless. The fools fighting in the comments have no bearing on our lives. Then again, those fools form a large portion of the voting body. No, they won’t have much of an impact on your life; the person they elect will.

Herein lies the great danger of entertainment. If serious discourse, such as debates, politics, and news is to be presented on an entertainment-driven medium like social media, then serious discourse ceases to exist. Large, exciting headlines drive debate (if we can even call it that). Short, biased articles determine political views. If the majority of society begins to engage in serious discourse through the medium of entertainment — a medium that will do its best to maximize simplicity and sectional appeal — then we risk losing the ability to give complex issues the amount of reasoned thought they deserve.

And without the ability to reason through the serious issues society faces, we can never hope to make the best decision on how to respond.

And that is ruin.



Non Sequitur

Logical fallacies are a common problem in many arguments (mine included). Being the lover of logic that I am, I shall examine a particular article in the hopes of identifying any possible gaps in reasoning. The article can be read here.

I’ll go through the article chronologically.

Only four paragraphs in, and we already have a problem. The author asks, “Who here knows how many children have died from abortion worldwide last year? (over 40 million).” The figure of 40 million, I presume, is the number of abortions in the last year. Fair enough. But who is to say 40 million children have died from abortions? Is an embryo a child? How about a fetus? The problem is that the author assumes that whatever is inside the womb prior to birth is a child. While not necessarily a fallacy, the premise that abortion kills children is based on an assumption that is not justified by the author: that whatever is being aborted is indeed a child.

The above does, however, constitute a fallacy due to how often the author uses the premise that “abortions kill children.” Just about any reader will agree that killing children is not morally sound. By portraying abortion as child-killing, the author is portraying the pro-choice camp as child-killers. This is a strawman — since child-killing is unacceptable, portraying abortion as such makes abortion unacceptable. I severely doubt that any pro-choice advocates would agree that abortion is child-killing.

Next, we seem to have a little math problem: “Globally, 20% of established pregnancies end with induced abortion. Historically, one has to go back to the 14th Century and the Black Plague, when 30% of humanity perished, to find a worse catastrophe.” Last I checked, even if we decide to define abortion as the death of a human, 20% of pregnancies being terminated is nowhere near the same as 30% (or even 20%) of the human race dying. This is a false comparison that over-exaggerates the loss of life due to abortion (if we are to define it as such), thereby portraying abortion as a “catastrophe.” A catastrophe is easy to argue against.

Now the author proceeds to claim that the pro-choice camp is full of liars, using sources to back up his claims. Repeatedly calling the opposition “liars” constitutes argumentum ad hominem. Actually, no; it’s just name-calling. The sources used to “expose” these lies are less than credible as well; they are all openly anti-abortion. This constitutes the fallacy of cherry picking. Pardon me if I find testimony and statistics presented by a group with specific interests a bit suspicious (of course, the pro-choice camp is just as guilty of this).

A few paragraphs down, and we have a fallacy that stood out to me for its frequent use in other debates: the association fallacy. The author states that the USSR and Nazi Germany were some of the first countries to legalize abortion. By associating abortion with regimes popularly considered immoral, the author implies that abortion is equally immoral. In other words, “abortion was first practiced by Communists and Nazis. Communists and Nazis are bad. Therefore, abortion is bad.” The Nazis also championed animal welfare. I suppose it’d be rather neo-Nazi of me to support stopping the trade of ivory.

I could go on, but I do not wish to tax your time more than necessary.

The unfortunate conclusion I come to is that this article builds its case on assumptions, fallacies and cherry-picked sources. The argument presented against abortion is unconvincing to anyone except those who are already anti-abortion (notice that I say anti-abortion and not pro-life. This article does not present much of a pro-life argument, but focuses on why abortion is “bad”).


I is Smarterer

Are you educated?

Most people will answer “yes.” We will, however, differentiate between different “levels” of education to answer the question “who is more educated?”

How do we go about answering this question? How do measure “educated-ness”?  And is our assessment of education at all important?

Education is one of those loaded terms whose definition and implications vary from person to person and from culture to culture. Where I come from, education is a combination of good manners and profession; a garbage man is not educated, and neither is rowdy businessman. A doctor with an understanding of social cues and courtesy is.

Another definition of education is found in all those nice standardized test registration forms that ask what the highest level of education achieved by your parents was. Here, education is determined by formal degrees; a Master’s makes you “more educated” than someone with only a Bachelor’s.

The fact remains that none of these systems is perfect. Our understanding of education, like so many other things in life, is subjective in that it is determined by what we value. Some consider STEM fields to be more difficult to study, and therefore a person with a STEM degree is better educated than someone with a degree in philosophy. Others will judge your education by how lucrative your profession is (because, obviously, a person who earns a large paycheck must necessarily be well-educated).

In light of this, I propose the following definition of intelligence: the ability to reason well.

By this, I mean the ability to construct an argument free of fallacy; to identify flaws in the reasoning of others; to make decisions and inferences appropriate for what evidence is available. In other words, your education is judged by how well you can think.

What makes this a better model for assessing intelligence is that it is free of at least some of the biases plaguing the above definitions. College degrees (and the “prestigious, well-paying jobs associated with them) are expensive and out of reach of those who cannot afford higher education. Etiquette is equally biased; what is acceptable in one culture is offensive in another. The ability to reason, on the other hand, transcends wealth, profession and cultural norms. The rules of logical thinking are universal.

Not only is this form of education more accessible, but it is arguably more useful. Knowledge of engineering cannot help you in deciding whether a person is guilty of a crime. Expertise in medicine won’t help you vote for the more qualified political candidate. Accurate critical thinking, however, allows you to reason in a way that is applicable to all circumstances. Understanding the pitfalls of logical fallacies, contradictions, prejudices, stereotypes and emotional appeals is what allows you to spot a lie or pick out an inconsistent argument, whether the person lying or being inconsistent is a scientist, lawyer, doctor, advertiser, politician, or garbage man.





There’s a Reason the Name Satan has “SAT” in It

It’s that time of year again for many Juniors: standardized testing. I refer to two such tests in particular: the SAT and the ACT. Both tests are widely used by universities in the college admissions process as a measure of predicted college success. These tests are ineffective in their purpose and result in unhealthy forms of competition among students.

I recently took the SAT for the first time. My first crack at the ACT is less than a week away. To say that I (and many other students) am stressed is an understatement. The importance of these tests is drilled into our minds from the beginning of high school, if not earlier. The general feelings this creates are unhealthy for students. Nothing kills self-esteem more than performing poorer-than-expected on one of these “fate-deciding, success-predicting, intelligence-quantifying” tests. The mental harm they cause is horrendous.

Take my example. After seeing my SAT score, I began doubting everything I’ve worked for. What is the point in learning – in pursuing education – when a test that more and more is seen as a deciding factor in what I will achieve declared me sub-par? My antidepressant dosage went up, and my hunger for learning went down.

The primary argument for requiring such tests is that they are necessary in differentiating between applicants; they tell admissions officers who will do better in college. The problem is that this premise simply doesn’t hold up. Studies by MIDUS, NACAC and Education Northwest show that, while tests have do some predictive power with regards to college success, high school GPA and personality qualities are more accurate predictors.

This makes sense. What is more predictive of your academic success over the course of four years in college? A four hour exam or four years of continuous effort in school? The  100 hours of preparation for a high SAT/ACT score or the over 2000 hours you spend studying in high school to maintain a high GPA? It’s easy to sprint 100 meters. It takes endurance to run a marathon. A test is a sprint. School is a marathon.

Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are only products of a greater evil: competitive society. The United States in particular has a problem, nay, obsession with competition. The world of academic pursuits is not spared. Just search up US News College Rankings to see a hierarchy of the “best colleges.” What makes Yale “better” than Berea is beyond me. Ah, yes: the name.

College rankings breed college competition. College competition breeds selectivity (because selectivity implies superiority these days). Selectivity breeds a focus on quantifiable assessments of student potential (standardized tests). And it is standardized tests that breed competition among students.

You might think that competition only brings out the best in people. If the best means the most obsessive and cutthroat, then yes.

I therefore propose this as an alternative for the role of standardized tests in college admissions: a greater focus on student contribution to his or her community. Emphasize cooperation to make something grander over individualistic pursuits of glory. Your 1600 SAT score won’t help that homeless person. You organizing a group of students to provide food will.

These kinds of community service pursuits are also more accessible than the SAT/ACT. High scores often require classes, private tutors, books, online courses, and the like. I, like many other low-income students, cannot afford such luxuries. The emphasis placed on such tests favors the wealthy, for it is they who have the resources to do well. Community service, on the other hand, is largely free of charge. You don’t need money to volunteer to clean the floor at an orphanage.

A student’s value and potential can never – and must never – be assessed by a test. Rather, it should be judged by a willingness to cooperate with others to achieve something greater – something that glorifies no single person.

Ultimately, standardized tests are merely a part of the tumor of competition. As long as we continue to rank colleges as best, rank students as best, and judge people and institutions by numerical means, there will be no progress towards cooperation.


Into the Wild

Ah, Into the Wild: a story about a reckless youth’s idealized pursuit of purpose. Upon finishing Jon Krakauer’s book and doing some extra reading on Chris McCandless, this was certainly my opinion. I’ve since then become more torn in my assessment of the protagonist. Regardless of your view of McCandless, I feel that Krakauer shares an important principle that we could all learn from.

McCandless, Krakauer explains, was an idealist in a lot of ways. He was a rebel who wanted to do things his way. When asked whether or not he had a hunting license, he responded with, “Hell no. F*** their [the government’s] stupid rules” (Krakauer 6). McCandless despised what he saw as arbitrary rules put in place by someone in power. He saw this as an impingement on his independence, and that – the pursuit of independence and the ability to live (and die) on his own terms – was his motivation.

But why such a hostile attitude towards authority? Is Krakauer suggesting that the only noble goal is rebellion?

No. I believe that Krakauer’s message uses McCandless simply as an example – a rather extreme archetype, if you will. This is made clearer in chapters 14 and 15, where Krakauer describes his own reckless actions in the Alaskan wilderness. An avid climber, Krakauer traveled to Alaska in the hope of climbing Devil’s Thumb – a challenge even for his level of experience. In response to the initial failed attempt at climbing the Thumb, Krakauer says, “I could all too easily picture the smug expressions of condolence I’d receive from those who’d been certain of my failure from the get-go” (Krakauer 146). He went on to successfully complete the climb.

Clearly, Krakauer felt he had something to prove. I feel that McCandless acted on the same impulse – the desire to show to those who doubted his ability to live independently of the comforts of civilized life. For McCandless, this manifested itself in the form of rebellion against rules; authority was the “naysayer” he sought to prove wrong. Authority, in this sense, could’ve been his parents and their insistence on him attending college, or the law and its claim that he could not hunt without a license. Perhaps even public opinion is an authority of sorts; few believe that one can live as independently of modern comforts as McCandless did.

And so, this is Krakauer’s message in Into the Wild: those who doubt your abilities have no influence over what you are truly capable of. Your achievements are in your hands only. Whether your goal may be living on the road for a few years, climbing a mountain alone, or perhaps something a little less dangerous, that goal is achievable regardless of what popular wisdom or authority may say.


If Emily Were a…

If you were a piece of machinery, which would you be? How about which fragrance? Type of building? I must say, thinking of an answer to these for myself is hard enough. Coming up with answers for a poet I had done a grand total of five articles-worth of research on is doubly so.

Thus, I present to you Emily Dickinson and what fifteen things she would be if not human, or things that I associate with her based on research:

1. Animal – cat.

When I think of cats, I imagine these stay-at-home animals that are loathe to leave their favourite spot on couch. Dickinson being well-known for her reclusive personality, she’d be your household tabby.

2. Plant – lily.

Many of Dickinson’s poems deal with death and immortality. Lilies being a common sight at funerals, I think they represent these poems of hers well.

3. Article of clothing – t-shirt.

A t-shirt is a very light piece of clothing, usually worn in warm temperatures. Dickinson’s poems are rather short compared to those of poets like Edgar Poe. That is, they are comparatively light.

4. Day of the week – Sunday.

Dickinson came from a Puritan background and was herself religious. Thus, it seems natural to associate the day of Church sermons with the poet.

5. Drink – tea.

I don’t know about you, but a cup of hot black tea is my go-to beverage for relaxing in a quiet spot in my house. I do a lot of my writing, including this, with tea at my side. Imagining Dickinson working away at a poem in her room, I can’t help but see this drink on her table.

6. Colour – black.

The image of a recluse brings to my imagination darkness. Not necessarily a negative kind, but simply a dark room, secluded from the overwhelming brightness of the outside world.

7. Musical instrument – organ.

There is a theory that Dickinson’s famous use of the dash was inspired by hymn-singing. Hymns, to my mind, bring with them an image of a large church organ accompanying the choir.

8. Natural phenomenon – rain.

I hope you’re not getting irritated by my references to Dickinson’s reclusivity, because here’s another one. Perhaps I am influenced by the proverbial monsoon outside my window, but I find myself most eager to hide in my room when it rains. I imagine our poet being similar.

9. Word – emotion.

Lyric poetry is emotional by definition, but I find Dickinson’s particularly so. Her favourite topics of romance, death, and hope are a testament to this.

10. Geometric shape – triangle.

For the very reason I state above. While she certainly wrote of other things, her poems on love, death and hope are the ones I found the most interesting. Three topics – three vertices.

11. Season of the year – winter.

Living in Africa, I haven’t experienced winter in years. But, from my memories, it had this white stuff called snow that fell from the sky. Dickinson was known for wearing white, and so I associate the “white season” with her.

12. Fragrance – bad body odour.

Stop. I know what you’re thinking. This is meant as a compliment to Dickinson, not an insult. Her poetry was rebellious by the time’s standards, flying in the face of accepted punctuation and style. Similarly, body odour flies in the face of the cleanliness expected by polite society. Hence, the analogy.

13. Type of building – log cabin.

What a natural category for Dickinson. Although she lived her life in a building that was anything but modest, I imagine Dickinson more at home in a simple log cabin – in the nature and away from society.

14. Language – Latin.

Latin is considered by many to be a beautiful language, both for its history and the works written in it. Dickinson’s poems are held in a similarly high regard by many but, like Latin, can only truly be appreciated if understood.

15. Area of study – philosophy.

Like philosophy, Dickinson tackles with some of the fundamental experiences that shape human life. Emotion, death, the afterlife, and nature all feature as prominent topics both in Dickinson’s poems and in philosophy.



On Writing Résumés

Résumé is a word I did not know much about until 48 hours ago. Sure, it had connotations in my head with job applications, but I had no idea what to imagine when it came to what a résumé actually contains. And so, with the immense background that is three websites, I present you with my tips and guidelines on how to write a résumé.

This should be a no-brainer. A résumé should be flawless in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Even if the job being applied for doesn’t revolve around writing, it is still vital to present a résumé that conveys professionalism and maturity. A résumé filled with errors implies that the writer doesn’t care much for the job anyway.

What I certainly wasn’t anticipating in my research was that a résumé should ideally be written in a bullet-point format. Short, to-the-point statements are preferable to full sentences, especially when presenting your background and previous achievements. I was probably surprised because I envisioned résumés being something like college application essays, in that you are trying to explain to someone what makes you different from other applicants and therefore warrants your acceptance. While this principle holds true, it takes a far more listing-off-facts appearance in résumés, probably because the people reviewing the application only spend around ten seconds on each.

While any job should ideally serve your interests and needs, it is the employer’s needs that require attention when applying for a job. The employer’s goal is (often) turning a profit, not providing you an income. That is to say, the employer is not interested in how your life will be benefited if you are employed, but in how employing you will benefit the workplace. That being said, discuss what you bring to the table. Talk about past work experiences and, especially, how those experiences can translate into productivity and success for the employer.

Lastly, it is important to realize that a résumé is essentially a piece of rhetoric; you are trying to convince someone to hire you. Convincing rhetoric is tailored to the audience. A résumé is no different. You may recall a post I wrote a while ago in which I reviewed Thank You for Arguing. In the book, Jay Heinrichs emphasizes what he calls commonplaces – beliefs, goals or phrases that a specific group uses. Using the commonplaces of your audience makes it more inclined to see you as one of its own – more likely to at least invite you for an interview, in the context of job applications. In other words, make a point of using the commonplaces of a prospective employer. If a business uses the phrase “committed to providing quality customer service” to describe itself, then it may be a good idea to use the phrase yourself in a résumé. That is, talk about how you have provided quality customer service in the past, and how you can do so in the future.


For more information on writing résumés, these are the websites I used: