A few weeks ago, I was a guest on Peter Biello’s public radio show. In this space I talked about how Peter, instead of asking to recommend five books, had asked me for some examples of writing prompts. It turns out the prompts, more than anything I said, were of interest to some folks. Full confession: the prompts were all part of a final examination I gave to students in an alternative school I ran a few lifetimes ago. At the request of a reader, I now present that final in whole. If you find any of these questions thought-provoking, please write a response and send it to me (email@example.com) and, with your permission, I’ll publish it here.
Current Events in Historical Modernist Thought
Please answer the following questions in complete essays of not more than eight pages apiece.
- Looking around you at all the people you come in contact with each day, about what percentage would you say are fully human and what percentage are zombies or pod people? How many strike you as having relatively fully-formed personalities and intellects (even if you may not care for them) and how many of them could, for all you know, simply disappear as soon as they leave your presence? That is, if you interact with a hundred people over the course of the day, with how many of them do you make human contact or sense that such contact is possible? 90? 63? 12? 4? How do you explain this figure? What does this say about you as a person? What are the commonalties among the people you identify as human? That is, do they tend to be the kind of people who do well on standardized intelligence tests, or is there some other factor which makes people be truly human? Could this humanity be measured? If so, what kind of “soulmetrics” would you use? If not, how do you know it exists? Are you simply missing the humanity of a large number of people or is there something fundamentally strange about the human condition? Or strange about you? If you are becoming more of the kind of person you want to be, will this number likely go up or down? What does this say? Please be specific and cite examples.
- Do cynical statements and bon mots seem to stick in your mind better than uplifting sentiments? Which has a stronger hook, doubt or faith? That is, which are you more likely to remember and identify with, Yeats’ statement that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity” or Jesus’ injunction to “Love one another as I have loved you”? Sam Shepherd’s and Bob Dylan’s judgment that “People never do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient and then they repent” or Fritz Perl’s placid “You do your thing and I do my thing . . .”? Why? Is a healthy cynicism necessary for survival? Do you want to increase or decrease your cynicism? Given the choice, would you like to have a simple, child-like faith in humanity and fate? Why or why not?
- Using an evolutionary framework, how do you explain the existence of human consciousness? That is, while it may take a leap of faith to accept that the mystery of life was created from non-living organic matter, it is at least possible to imagine a fertile primordial soup being struck by electricity or some other force and becoming alive. From this impersonal beginning, however, how do you explain the evolution of human consciousness, the ability of humans to be aware of, question and take delight in their existence? What was the process by which consciousness was created? If you accept a completely materialistic and behavioristic worldview, which posits that humans are nothing more than the result of impersonal and infinite time, plus chance, much like the image of an infinite number of monkeys locked for eternity in a room with typewriters eventually typing out “Hamlet,” how do you arrive at the sanctity of the individual? What is so sacred about any individual creature, if it is simply a product of chance?
- What, exactly, is the difference between men and women, besides primary and secondary sexual characteristics? That is, why is it that women are, in general, good, kind, loving, sensitive and intelligent people, able to care deeply for others and communicate their feelings, while men are obtuse, cruel, crude and unable to express their emotions, unless one chooses to define these broadly and include “horniness” as an emotion? Are these differences primarily genetic or environmental? What could be done to help cure men? Given how hopeless men are, why aren’t all women lesbians?
- If you were stranded on a desert island, with what one person, whether you personally know him or her right now, would you most like to spend the rest of your life? (Note: choosing friends who are boatmakers or survivalist nuts defeats the entire purpose of this exercise and is therefore rendered unacceptable.) Why? Is there anyone in the world who would choose you to be with him or her? How does this make you feel?
- What popular musician or band has had the strongest impact on you and your view of the world? For instance, many people cite Rupert Holmes, whose “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” sums up so well the staleness which can creep into a relationship and whose “Him” seems to take the listener right into the mind of the cuckolded lover. Likewise, the oeuvre of Three Dog Night, from the anthemic “Black and White” to the soulful “Mama Told Me Not to Come” to the mystical “Shambala,” seems to have helped a number of people understand their place in the universe. What mindless pop musician or group has done the most for you?
- Does good overcome evil? Immediately? Eventually? If you answer in the affirmative, other than a faith in the teachings of Gandhi, on what do you base this belief? That is, please cite three specific and personal examples of good triumphing against all odds. If you answer in the negative, how do you manage to get out of bed each morning? If good does not overcome evil, why do you believe in the good and live your life accordingly? (For bonus points, please identify what is “good” and what is “evil” outside of a Christian framework. That is, “God said it, I Believe it and that settles it” may make for an effective know-nothing bumper sticker, but it is probably not an adequate ethical measuring stick.)
- Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who were both in their mid-thirties at the time, told Yippies not to trust anyone over thirty. How do you respond to this? Are your political views less pure than they were 15 or 20 years ago? Are they more “realistic”? Have you sold out? What was your price? Would you change this if you could? How? For what political viewpoint would you be willing to be arrested today?
- Estimate how many hours of your existence have been spent watching each of the following television shows: “The Lucy Show,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Davy and Goliath,” “Lassie,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Three’s Company,” “MASH,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Galloping Gourmet.” Which of these shows did the most to further your understanding of life and how it should be lived? Which most forced you to confront issues which you would rather ignore? Which most increased your belief in the common humanity of all people?
- Eschatology is the study of the last days of this world. (Never mind that the notion of “studying” a subject which presents no verifiable data is anathema to the scientific mind.) Christians believe a variety of bizarre things are likely to happen (e.g., required marks on the forehead and wrist in order to buy or sell goods, some particular significance to the number 666) which will signal the emergence of the Antichrist, the end of the age etc., etc., ad nauseum. Science, on the other hand, seems to suggest that, following Newton’s Fourth Law of Thermodynamics, entropy is king of all and that things, all things, will eventually fall apart. What do you believe? Is there an end to the universe, a steady state with no energy, or will Gabriel’s trumpet sound, raising the fallen saints to glory with God? More personal, and therefore chilling, what will happen to you when you die? How often do you think about this? Talk about this?
- What is a moral point of view and why is it absent from our national life, except for the spray-painted spirituality of fundamentalist preachers and gown-grabbing right-wing Republican politicians? That is, it is difficult to identify any truly moral vision in the icons of our society–unless success (read: money) for the sake of success can be seen as a moral stand. What is Michael Jackson’s moral point of view? Bob Dole’s? Roseanne Arnold’s? Where in your life do you take a moral stand? Only when you have an audience which will recognize your ethical strength even if it disagrees with you? What price are you willing to pay for your beliefs?
- Rate, in terms of musical excellence, the following pieces of music: the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and “Amazing Grace.” If your list’s organizing principle had been “hummability,” would this perfectly reverse the order? What does this mean about music? What does this mean about you?
- Does the sound of a Southern Baptist calling out “Hallelujah” at some supposed evidence of God’s greatness seem like fingernails on a blackboard to you? Why? If you were visiting an ashram in India and saw hundreds of novitiates humming or repeating a mantra, would you be intrigued or repelled? Is there a fundamental difference between Anglo-American religious delusions and Oriental religious belief? How come? As a thought experiment, imagine that you are a secular Tibetan, having turned your back on the Dalai Lama, and that you are visiting Memphis. You wander into a Black revival meeting, where the congregation is shouting God’s glory and singing spirituals. Would you find this a frightening return to primitiveness or a charming religious folkway to be experienced and enjoyed? Why?
- John Lennon, quoting Arthur Janov, the guru of primal scream, said, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Please explain what this means, using this marriage of geometry and psychology to estimate your own pain. Second, please identify the metaphysical concepts with which we measure the following: confusion, distance, love, volume and pleasure.
- The Bible speaks of the “unforgivable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, without explaining exactly is meant by this, although it clearly implies a verbal component. This notion has caused countless generations of teenagers to believe they have unwittingly lost their shot at redemption. What words do you think would cause God to damn forever an otherwise acceptable human? How does this thin-skinned God sit with you? Could a prayer beginning “Sticks and stones may break my bones . . .” be a way to break out of this theological conundrum? Similarly, R. Vaughn Taylor, in his 1968 hit “Indiana Wants Me,” says “If a man ever needed dying, he did./No one had the right to say what he said about you.” What did the murder victim likely say about the narrator’s girlfriend? For what words would you want your lover to murder someone and become a fugitive? Is a sneering mention of fat thighs or facial hair grounds for homicide? Gray hair? Wrinkles?
- Like Gale Sayers, the great Bears running back, O.J. Simpson was not dependent on power for his success, relying instead on speed and quickness. Given this running style, could it be that the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman has so shocked America because of the messiness of the slaying? Maybe Hulk Hogan, strung out on steroids, would slash and mutilate his ex-wife, but shouldn’t O.J. have been more graceful, simply sliding a stiletto between Nicole’s shoulders, having her slip from a tower or, better, dosing her drink with a non-traceable poison? Bearing in mind this notion of the murderer fitting the means, how, in a perfect world, would the following people kill their spouses: Billy Graham? Don Knotts? Jesse Jackson? Pat Buchanan? Mel Gibson? William F. Buckley? Wilt Chamberlain? Mary Tyler Moore?
- Who was your favorite Beatle? Why? Who was your favorite Monkee? Why? Who was your favorite Stone? Why? Who was your favorite Archie? Why? Who was your favorite Blood, Sweat and Tear? Why? What commonalties exist among your choices? What does this say about you and your artistic sense?
- Who is Jesus Christ? Bear in mind that if you answer that he was a great moral teacher who was not, however, divine, you are faced with his claims to be God or God’s son on a regular basis throughout the Gospels. Great moral teachers do not typically misrepresent themselves or misunderstand their identities. Likewise, if Jesus’s followers had applied his teaching that they should take no thought for the morrow and should plant no crops, they would likely have died off from starvation within a generation. This seems not to be the advice of a God. If , contrariwise, you choose to answer that he is simply mythical, of course, you must respond to the contemporaneous accounts of his existence and crucifixion and to the fact that for two millennia humans have claimed to have had their lives transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ. What is your basis for rejecting this plethora of human experience? On yet another hand, if you choose the orthodox Christian position that Jesus is in fact God, a part of the trinity, you must explain why the singularly confusing idea that if God himself walked among us for 33 years, he never said a single thing about the importance of sanitation in saving lives.
- College sophomore philosophizing may deserve ridicule, but the kinds of questions we raise during adolescence are important, so important, perhaps, that we are terrified by them in later life. Leaving aside the linguistic brambles of such chestnuts as “Can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it,” examine the question of thought and language. Specifically, is human thought exclusively a product of language; were a human to be raised in a completely language-free environmentis it possible to imagine a non-verbal thought
- Flaubert said, “Emma Bovary c’est moi.” About what character in fiction, film or other media would you cry out, “Yup, that’s me?” Please explain why, bearing in mind that the medium of your choice will be reflected in your essay and your grade. That is, choosing to compare yourself to Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser’s epic An American Tragedy is likely to gain more points than selecting the title character in Helen Reddy’s 1973 hit “Delta Dawn” or Morris the finicky feline in the cat food commercials.