“It will always be feudal to work toward a goal…”

Sometimes a word choice that is clearly wrong can unintentionally suggest a truth.

Today’s sentence came from an essay that was responding to a case study: The New York Times had run a story on a co-op farm started with permission on a state-owned tract of land by residents of the Hill neighborhood in New Haven that, after thirteen productive years, was slated for demolition to make way for a commercial complex and shopping center. Students were asked to write in favor of the farm or in favor of the development, or else suggest a compromise and write in support of that.

Perhaps the hardest argument concept for my students to grasp, for some reason, is what I call the lens, something like what the Toulmin Model refers to as the warrant, of the process—the idea that justifies linking the evidence to the thesis. But the student writing the paper from which today’s sentence was copied had a good lens: the negative lesson New Haven would be teaching the young people involved in the farm, that having a good goal, working hard on it through legitimate avenues, and achieving success means nothing because the government can wipe it all out at will or whim—and so, that there is no use in trying in the first place.

Here’s the full sentence that expressed the lesson the student said the state was teaching:

“It will always be feudal to work toward a goal because the government will eventually destroy any hard work or achievements toward that goal.”

That one wrong word choice (or hearing error, perhaps) takes the idea of democracy right out of  the equation. And maybe, although that was not the idea my student was trying to express, it’s a pretty good insight nevertheless. ARE we just peasants, toiling away on land that can never belong to us, land the Lord of the Manor can lend or take back for reasons of his own? —can, for reasons that have nothing to do with us, take away something that means much more to us than to him?

Now watching the New York City police crack down on demonstrators who are saying pretty much this same thing about Wall Street and the rich gives resonance to what my student wrote so many years ago, back in the days when we thought only inner-city people could feel they were living lives of futility…or that they were serfs in a feudal structure, pawns in some game they hadn’t chosen and couldn’t win. In this case, my student said more than she meant.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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