Once upon a time I was teaching remedial-level freshman comp at a Catholic Church-related university. In a class session devoted to topic development for a short (7-page) research-based argument paper, one student said he planned to write on the topic of “Protestants.” I asked him to clarify his central question, and he replied, “You know, who are they, where do they mostly live, what do they believe.” It took me nearly a minute (tick…tick…tick…) to frame a question in reply—that is to say, a question that did not too obviously express its subtext of “What the F?!?!?!?!”
And I don’t mean “once upon a time” to imply that things have changed. I’m teaching now at another Catholic Church-related university, for instance, and I’m constantly amazed at how little my students (most of whom claim to be Catholic) know about major concepts and even holidays in their own religion, let alone other religions. At my “other” school, culturally more of a mixed bag, the situation is no different: most students will say that religion is important to them, but most of them are pretty hazy on the major beliefs or texts of any particular religion.
In a truly secular society this might be understandable (although, in literature classes, no less frustrating and saddening), but American society seems to become more vocally and dogmatically “religious” with each passing day—or so at least it seems in the media and in politics. The main problem with ignorance about religion, and religions, is that it is frequently accompanied by gullibility and especially a willingness to believe the worst. This is the case with ignorance of any kind; and, discouragingly enough, although most kinds of ignorance can be remedied by a little research, doing a little research seems to be the last thing that occurs to anyone.
All of this is merely prologue to today’s Horror.
Here was a student in my American Lit (first half) survey. The course is subtitled “Beginnings to Civil War,” meaning that the assigned readings cut off around 1865, or more accurately, the course closes with writers who “fl“ed around 1865. So we begin with the Puritans. (Interspersed are Native American readings, but dated according to when they were written down, not when the words or thoughts may have first been uttered.) Lately I’ve been arranging the syllabus according to themes (religion, the idea of America, slavery, women’s rights, “toward an American art”), with each theme’s readings arranged chronologically. Students are responsible for integrating the readings into a master chronology (which the anthology pretty much does for them), but reading thematically we can focus on the ways in which specific kinds of ideas emerged, evolved, battled, faded. At least my theory is that we can do that.
My student does understand that “the Puritans” flourished in a “time frame”: that is, they’re not still around—their writings and influence are time-specific, and even the changes the Puritan community underwent occurred within a specific period. But then she’s trying to associate the Puritans with today, for some reason: to make their beliefs clearer to her readers? to feel more closely related to them? to reassure herself that nothing truly disappears? to indicate to me that she understands more than she actually does?
The course never addresses Seventh Day Adventists. That sect wasn’t officially established until 1863, for one thing. (For another, the course doesn’t attempt to address all religions present in the United States at any given time.) So their presence in a paper written for the course is, shall we say, unexpected.
My suspicion that she doesn’t know much about the sect is deepened by the reasonable assumption that it’s only something she’s heard of, not something she knows anything about: how else to explain “Adventence” for “Adventists”?
What would “adventence” even be? “Advent” is arrival, the culmination of a process that leads to inevitable emergence or appearance. The advent of Spring. The Advent of Christ. Ad + venio, I come to; advenio, I arrive after a journey. Well, in English the suffix -ence or -ance adds “instance of an action or process, instance of a quality or state.” “Adventence,” then, might mean the condition of having arrived. The blooming daffodils confirmed the adventence of Spring. Would then the Seventh Day Adventence be the state of having arrived on the seventh day? Did the olden-day Puritans re-arrive in our midst seven days ago?
Yes, the Puritans were conservative and strict in their personal behavior, and so are Seventh Day Adventists supposed to be. Yes, both advocate a God-centered life, spiritual and personal humility, and the basic tenets of Christianity (and its Jewish roots). There are a few less-general beliefs they also share. But there’s no reason to think of one as an earlier (or later) version of the other…unless you’re a student with fuzzy notions about both and a desire to make something clear to readers that isn’t clear to yourself.
Verbum sap: Never claim more than you can support.
Never try to explain something you lack the means to understand. Look up what you don’t know. Think.
The late Stanley Crane, dearly beloved and deeply missed former Head Librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, was once bemoaning to me students’ dependence on Cliff Notes. (This dependence has only grown, now on Spark Notes and other easily-accessed computer crutches as opposed to those yellow-and-black Caution-striped books that actually cost money.) “Why,” he asked, “do they feel they have to copy down and then parrot ideas that they don’t even understand? Why are they willing to take the Cliff version of a story rather than reading it for themselves?” And then his point: “Why don’t they have the courage to use their own beautiful minds?”
I agreed with, agree with, him. Courage, wisdom, or energy—why don’t they use their own beautiful minds? Teachers (and librarians) continue to believe in the eventual adventence of these minds, a flowering or flourishing of that Inner Student. Oh, let it be.