Tag Archives: sweeping generalization

“People are violent creatures…”

So begins a student essay on, if I recall correctly, the epic hero. It is a statement that, unfortunately, holds up pretty well, as generalizations go. Even the pickiest writing instructor can find little to quibble with here.

But he’s not done beginning yet. Will he fall into the Profound-Openings Trap? Yes, he will:

“People are violent creatures. Violence has been happening since the dawn of man…”

Okay, maybe not so bad. We don’t have any eye-witness accounts, but as Darwin observed, nature is red in tooth and claw, and “man,” as just another piece of nature, can reasonably be assumed to fit into that observation. So: not necessarily proven, but certainly a reasonable assumption. The second sentence is rather awkward in word choice, but I guess we can say “violence happens,” so we could also say “violence has been happening”—although I’d argue that “acts of violence have been happening” would be a more legitimate way of phrasing it.

Oh, sorry. Still not done beginning. Here it comes:

“People are violent creatures. Violence has been happening since the dawn of man, and probably even before that.”

There’s the Profound Opening. Sweeping generalization about distant history (“yore”), followed by an offered further application. Now, yes, acts of violence surely did “happen” before the “dawn of man,” unless you believe man arrived at the same time as all the other creatures, violent or otherwise. But if my student wanted to suggest that all creatures are violent, then why did he begin with his philosophical observation about people? And if he meant his observation about violence to be specific to people, why oh why did he have to go on to suggest that violent acts by people probably “happened” before the dawn of man?

Doesn’t he equate “dawn” with “first appearance,” “beginning,” or “arrival”? Is “the dawn of man” just another way of saying “a long time ago”?

Something like this seems to have been the case, because you can see him second-guessing himself (almost always a mistake!): “Whoa, wait! ‘Dawn of man’—probably longer than that! I’d better not stop at the dawn of man! I’ll make it longer…”

The link at Profound-Openings Trap will take you to one of the other specimens I’ve saved. I really do appreciate students’ desire to begin an essay with an assertion that has gravitas or philosophical sweep. But they undermine themselves every time by reaching for something SO profound as to be ridiculous. And if the first statement isn’t ridiculous, they keep at it until it becomes ridiculous.

Then they come to class and exchange drafts with other students, and the groups do their best to offer constructive criticism. And NOBODY laughs, or looks puzzled, or suggests a change upon reading these Profound Openings. And that’s what worries me. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of realism, or humility, or reason that makes them deaf to the way such sentences actually strike a thinking reader. I cannot let myself think that such openings were rewarded in high school classes, but possibly the teacher promoted the idea of opening an argument with an interesting generalization and the student lacked the perspective to discriminate between “interesting” and “jaw-dropping” or “laugh-out-loud funny.”

How can this awareness be developed without squashing the high desire? I can sit with a student in my office and discuss the pitfalls of grandiose pronouncements, and I can help him realize the problems with the one he has committed; but with the next paper, there’s another one.

What I hope is that eventually, as he continues to mature, my student will come to understand what is laughable in this kind of opening and learn to replace it with something he actually consciously means, before his audience is no longer his instructor in the privacy of her office, but professional colleagues at an important presentation he’s making, out there in the future.