English 101/Lowe Assignment 1

John Berger writes, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.” He goes on to argue that there are many people in our private and public lives interested in influencing the ways we know and believe. He argues that, in the art world, there is an aristocracy that for centuries “owned” the domain of art, literally and figuratively, and that it has been slow to surrender that domain, even with the advent of the camera, which, according to Berger, makes the power the aristocracy has over art objects meaningless. If we, the public, surrender to the aristocracy the interpretation of art, then we allow it to continue to hold power over the history of images, and, as we will discussed on line, the history of images for Berger is the closest link we have to our past. Berger writes, finally, that “a people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history (160)” In your mind, how does this work? What exactly does Berger mean? How does an ability to “situate oneself in history” allow a person—or a group of people—greater freedom to choose? What do you think of Berger’s argument, and how can it be extended to other areas of our lives where there seems to be a power struggle over the “ways we see”? Are there times or ways you think Berger’s arguments are unsound, or fail to take into consideration certain areas of human behavior?
You have two options for this assignment; choose one:
Option 1: I want you to begin with a discussion of your perception of Berger’s central point or theme in his essay, and then go on to discuss its relevance to a particular aspect of your life at a particular moment (or moments) in time. In other words, using your interpretation of Berger’s sense of how others influence what we “know and believe,” write an essay about a time when someone (or something) had power over you, a time when you relinquished to them, him, or her your “ways of seeing.” What was the situation? Who was involved? How did you surrender your perception to the other person? Did this take place gradually, over time, or immediately? Now that you have some distance from this experience, can you assess why you made the decisions you did? How did you come to see things differently, and how were you able to reclaim your “ways of seeing”? Were there positive things that resulted from surrendering your power to another? To what extent do we do this daily in our lives?
You may, for this essay, write about a public or private figure; you could even argue that you could surrender your authority to television, or a video game, or something of this kind. But you will need to write in significant detail in order to communicate effectively the history of the situation you experienced. And it is crucial that this not merely be a personal essay, but a personal essay grounded in an assessment of your understanding of the John Berger essay. We need to see the connection you’re making on the page. You are doing a blend, then, of analysis, personal writing, and critical interpretation of both.
Option 2: For this assignment, you need not, of course, consult personal experience if you feel capable of discussing Berger’s themes without it. But in this scenario, you should discuss his ideas within the context of a particular issue or circumstance, as Berger does. Berger chooses art, while you might choose education, women’s issues, racial issues, governmental issues, political issues, music, religion, and so on. Feel free to work in this fashion, but if you do, remember, you are still trying to apply Berger’s principles to the issue you’re discussing. Don’t see the essay as the opportunity to preach about your favorite controversial social problem; try to think and write through Berger’s perspectives. Do feel free to disagree with Berger as a source for an essay as well. Many, many readers find his work questionable at best.
When I pose questions, as I do in the above paragraphs, they are not questions that you must answer in the course of the writing of your paper. They are questions that are intended to extend and guide your thinking, and not to necessarily provide you with a structure for organizing your essay. Your paper should take on its own organization based on the material with which you choose to work.
That said, your essay should offer the following things:
1. A summary and/or introduction to the elements of the Berger essay that will allow your reading audience the information they need to comprehend your essay.
2. A thesis or central idea that emerge specifically in the early parts of the essay or becomes clear as the essay unfolds and arrives at its conclusion.
3. Specific quotations of the Berger essay in at least two instances.
4. A clear and specific connection between the elements of the Berger essay you use and the individual experience or concept that you write about.
5. A conclusion that successfully gives the essay a sense of closure without merely repeating what has been said earlier in the essay.
6. Relatively error free writing
Minimum length: 1000 words. Papers of course must be word-processed, and presented in MLA format. (We’ll cover this before the paper is due in Unit 2.)
One possible strategy for a successful essay:
Paragraph one: Start with a sentence that reads, “In “Ways of Seeing,” art critic John Berger discusses”—. This establishes the context of the Berger essay immediately, and forces you, as a writer, to begin to summarize the text overall, while beginning to focus on the aspect of the essay with which you will word. Follow this first sentence or two with a quotation from the text. This will show that you are serious about working with the Berger essay, and that you are able to quote it to support your sense of what it is about. From here, narrow the scope of your discussion of the Berger essay to the part or parts that you will use in your own essay. For instance, you might write, “For purposes of my discussion, I’m going to consider Berger’s argument that art is “mystified” by a ruling class in order to make it remote to the general population.” Then make a connection between that part of the Berger essay and your own inexperience or insight. For instance, you might write, “In my own experience, teachers of history in my elementary and high school years often ‘mystified’ American history by making heroes out of men we were taught to admire and worship rather than question and evaluate.” Then deliver a thesis. Something like this: “Too often, just as art critics and the wealthy ‘own’ the interpretation of artworks, educators ‘own’ the interpretation of history that indoctrinates students towards a belief system that doesn’t always hold up with regard to historical accuracy upon closer examination.”
Paragraph two: Write more extensively, and in greater detail about the aspect of the Berger essay you’re going to study. In the example I’ve introduced, the writer would focus his or her discussion on Berger’s comments on mystification, and quote an appropriate part of the text. Perhaps a quotation like this: “In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms. So, inevitably, it mystifies”(144). The purpose of this paragraph is to clarify what Berger meant when he discussed mystification in ways that readers have ready access to its meaning and its ramifications for viewing artworks and the history they represent.
Paragraph three: Begin this paragraph with a transitional sentence that reads something like, “The mystification of artworks and their history by art critics and art historians is similar to the way American history is mystified by teachers in public and private schools.” This then gives the write a platform to present his argument about education in schools, and to write about it general ways, establishing the concept that the teaching of history is more about indoctrination than the discovery of any essential truth. The writer might introduce one historical figure, and briefly discuss how that person’s role in history is misrepresented in schools.
Paragraph four, five, six, etc: Because this argument is controversial and difficult to prove, the writer must now introduce specific examples of this kind of teaching that takes place in schools. The writer could call on his or her own experience in grade school, the experience of others, the experience of history teachers, the particulars of a school’s history curriculum, and so on. While the writer conducts this discussion, he or she should quote from the Berger text at least two or three times to remind the reader that this discussion is founded in a reading of the Berger text. Multiple personal examples and or case studies could be used here.
Final paragraph: Here, the writer should establish the long-term ramifications of his or her discussion. Don’t merely “repeat” the essay’s talking points, but instead point readers in the direction of what the essay means for the teaching of history to students in the future. Tie in the Berger essay once again to bring the essay full circle. Leave readers with something to consider in general while bringing to the essay a sense of closure.

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