English sucked. I love writing and I love reading but I hate people telling me how to do it. Why should I analyze a specific way? Why can’t I read a book and write about my own opinion of it? You can probably tell that I didn’t necessarily come into my 7:20 PM (PM!!) CTW class with the rosiest of outlooks. That might actually be an understatement. I thought the class would be pretty much the same as all my other English classes – I’d show up, participate a bit, discuss a little, and write an essay the way that the teacher wanted. I was about as far off base as I could have been. My professor was a man that looked like a grad student; we were sitting in these weird spinny chair in very neon colors, and the only question discussed on the first day was “what is happiness?” Happiness? What? I thought this was an English class?
That day pretty much set the tone for the rest of the next two quarters – pretty much every day there was some fresh point that Professor Leither made that comprehensively blew my mind. We spent the majority of the first quarter discussing where exactly our food from (not animals, I made that joke already and no one laughed). We focused on factory farms, specifically using Jonathan Safran Foer’s powerful Eating Animals. We watched videos and discussed. We read the book and discussed. We literally would not stop discussing, and by the end of class Week 2 of Fall Quarter, I was grateful for it. I’d never been taught this way before; instead of forcing his own opinions on us, Professor Leither was perfectly content to simply sit in silence after posing a question and waiting till we came up with something.
But what did I learn from the past six months?
Even if I didn’t see until around the end of the Winter Quarter, we’ve spent the year talking about violence. From the violence that factory farmed animals have to endure to the pain of school shooters, we’ve comprehensively examined violence and just how much of it there is in our society today. But how can farms be violent? Sure, the animals get killed but isn’t that what they’re there for? That’s another argument, but watch this video and tell me that factory farms aren’t torture chambers for the animals. I knew factory farms were bad, sure, but I’d never really realized just quite how bad.
We then moved on to sustainability practices, with my second essay of the year tying in neatly to the effect that factory farms have on the planet and what we can do to fix them. Did you know that methane produced by cows is, on average, 20 to 100 times more destructive to the environment than CO2 on a twenty year time frame? And one single cow produces a 132 gallons of methane per year – comparable to that of an average car. (Facts About Pollution) I definitely wouldn’t have known. The unique style of writing that Professor Leither taught us forced us to look deep for the facts but make sure our essays were still exhaustively sourced and referenced, not really a skill that I had before. It’s made me a better writer and more interestingly made me more intelligent – I’m just reading more information about each subject that I research!
Our final topic of the year was violence, specifically the tragedy of Columbine and why it happened. We first approached this through Dave Cullen’s exhaustive book, Columbine. It focuses on making public the parts of the tragedy that weren’t really known to the general public for nearly a decade. More importantly, it focuses on the true reasons why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold decided to try and kill all of their high school classmates. You’d think that a decade after the shooting, the public would have a relatively clear idea of what the killer’s motivation was, but that is absolutely not true. Until the release of Columbine, disjointed theories about goths, the “Trench Coat Mafia” and depression swirled around, not in the least helped by the general ineptitude of the Jefferson County (Columbine’s area) Sheriff’s Department. I had absolutely no idea of any of this. To me, Columbine was just a big school shooting that happened nearly twenty years ago because some nerd kids hated some goths. Or something like that.
It’s the something like that that I decided to adapt to my final essay topic – the psychology of violence and the difference between psychopathy and insanity. Voyaging so deeply into the inner workings of the human brain when reading Columbine left me hungry to understand more about the workings of a mind that could be led to murder. However, when I did more research into the topic, I found one glaring error over and over: people kept calling psychopaths insane. After doing research on the definitions of both, I realized that this was something that I wanted to explore in my final essay.
A quick side note: another reason I enjoyed writing essays for this class more than pretty much any other class I’ve had ever are the broadness of the topics. We were given a ton of information about the general field that Professor Leither wanted us to write about and then were left free to create our own essay topic on something that truly interests us. I didn’t really appreciate until this year (and the sheer about of writing we had to do) how much it makes it easier to write about something you truly care about.
Anyways, after a few days of researching psychopathy and insanity and the varied differences between the two I realized something. We are apathetic when it comes to violence. We say we care, we toot our own horns, and we make a lot of noise but when it comes to serious action we are conspicuously absent. If I took any one thing from this class (and I definitely took a few), it would be the shocking state of apathy that the American people are afflicted with and a genuine desire to make a change.
We can apply this concept to apathy to every topic that we covered this year, from Foer to Cullen. When it comes to factory farms and factory farmed animals we love to say that we eat organic, and care about the environment but do we even know what that means anymore? How much better is the life of an organic, cage free chicken? Not much. The definition of free range just means that if a chicken can move freely inside a chicken coop, it is cage free. (Organic, Cage Free, Natural: The Truth Behind Egg and Chicken Labels) All that that means is that the chicken has enough space to move around a little. In the standard cage for an egg-laying hen, each bird has approximately 67 square inches of space. That is less than a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper. Nearly every cage-free bird has generally the same amount of space. (Foer, 79) This is shocking information, yes, but also information that PETA and other groups have been trying to shove down our throats for the better part of the 21st century. And yet we still don’t care.
We can say much the same when it comes to violence. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (to a lesser extent) were psychopaths, but why did they become this way? There were clear signs that were shown before the massacre, from Eric literally being caught with bombs to Dylan turning in a macabre essay detailing the plans of his attack ‘fictionally,’ but nearly exactly how they were planning on doing it for real. (Cullen) We simply need to care more. We need to analyze the signs and treat the problems of mental illness at the source. And this finally ties in with the final problem: a lack of education. We simply are not educated enough about mental health in this country. A 2007 Psychiatric Services study analyzed 303 mental health patients who in the previous calendar year had thought about going to the doctor but decided against it. When asked why, the most frequent response, from 66% of patients was that they thought the problem would get better on its own. A whopping 71% of the patients agreed with the statement “I wanted to solve the problem on my own.” (Blumenthal) What does this say about the American attitude towards mental health? We cannot, and should not live in a country where those afflicted with an actual illness feel as if they must deal with the problem on their own.
It’s this attitude of apathy that I learned the most of in Professor Leither’s class. Every single topic we covered showed me that as a culture, the American people simply do not care about bettering the world around them unless it immediately affects them in the short term. How can we allow millions of animals to be inhumanly slaughtered every year and serve the same meat to our children?
But most importantly, how can we live in a country where the poorest people are forced to eat meat that is literally destroying their environment in the long term? How can we live in a country where we know so little about mental health that we call somebody with an actual illness a derogatory “retarded?” These are problems that until a short few months ago I did not even know this country had. What this class taught me more than anything else is that we need to make a change in the world. Not necessarily a huge change, but we need to do something. Every person can, and should do something that has a lasting positive impact after they’re long gone.
And I’m sure each and every one of us can do it.
Blumenthal, Susan. “Overcoming Stigma and Improving Mental Health in America.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
“Organic, Cage-Free, Natural: The Truth Behind Egg & Chicken Labels.” Food Hacks RSS. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.