The Careful Cultivation of Belief

Sherry Medwin - Wilmette, Illinois
Entered on July 21, 2005
Sherry Medwin

When Sherry Medwin gave her 12th grade honors students the This I Believe essay assignment, she was met with a classroom full of bewildered students, unsure of how to write about belief. Ms. Medwin has come to believe that students should be given the freedom to express their personal values.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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When I asked students in my 12th grade writing class to submit an essay to this program, they shifted uneasily in their seats.

“What if I don’t believe in anything?” Charlie asked with genuine concern. He wasn’t the type to manufacture a bratty excuse to evade an assignment. Others echoed his apprehension as they struggled to generate ideas.

As they left class, several students asked—without a hint of irony—if I could suggest a topic to them. Although I did consider dispensing one of my beliefs du jour, plugging a favorite cause or two, I was too unsettled to act even in my self-interest.

If my honors-level high school seniors are typical nonbelievers, then the power to believe is in danger of extinction. More frightening is my Orwellian nightmare that schools may be leading the charge to vaporize belief. Like most cognitive skills, the development of a belief—what Virginia Woolf calls the “fierce attachment to an idea”—requires careful cultivation. It needs a rich soil and ample space to extend its young shoots. It needs a network of roots to sustain it through inclement weather. How can a belief breathe in the tight spaces of Scan-Tron forms? In the formulaic five paragraph essay? In the mad rush through exercises that race to the top and leave no child behind? How can it cleave its way through misconceptions if students are never asked what they think?

Invariably, the first question adolescent writers ask when they begin a writing assignment is whether first person pronouns are permitted. After all, most style manuals discourage the use of “I” in academic writing, insisting on third person, on objectivity, on detachment. But isn’t detaching students from a topic tantamount to denying their right to believe? Removing the “I” from “This I Believe” leads not to neutrality but to tyranny.

John Stuart Mill said that “one person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 with only interests.” Surely, he never had a college counselor advising him to build a resume of extracurricular interests instead of contemplating his beliefs. Were Socrates teaching in today’s schools, would his students, too, ask whether their pursuit of wisdom would shine on their school transcript?

Given some time to mull over the assignment, my students eventually unearthed a cache of wonderful beliefs buried under years of schooling. They believed in magic and science, in God and poetry, in friendship and true love—even in the Chicago Cubs. Liberated by the freedom to express their values, they were also terrified of their peers’ disapproval, for once they attached an “I” to a claim, they could neither hide behind impersonal generalizations nor string together a clothesline of quotes from other sources. As they went around the room sharing their beliefs, they felt their power surge.

The prospect of finding myself in a room of believers would not have appealed to me 20 years ago, but now I say bring on the credos, the manifestos, and the philosophies—the more, the merrier. Imagine an academic resume that highlights candidates’ beliefs instead of test scores and activities. This, I believe, could trigger a new era of education—and maybe even a revolution.

Sherry Medwin taught high school English for 32 years in an affluent suburb of Chicago and now teaches Developmental Reading and Writing at a city college. She believes all students, regardless of ZIP Code, are entitled to a rich education.