Okay, that title might be a little overly dramatic.
But it definitely captures my feelings about cliches.
One of the biggest struggles my students have in writing is succumbing to cliches and / or what I like to call “universal truths.”
A cliche is
a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox. (Dictionary.com)
A “universal truth” is the same thing really, only it applies more to ideas than to particular words or phrases. The way in which the idea is expressed may or may not be cliche, but the idea itself is. For example: “Family is important” “Love helps you overcome difficulties” “Perseverance leads you to success” etc.
So, a typical high school student’s thesis statement begin something like this:
“In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows how love can overcome great evils through his use of…”
Hold it right there. Everybody already knows “love can overcome great evils” and nobody would disagree that this idea is present in the play. Therefore, there is no point in writing an essay about it. As I taught my kids, the heart of an essay has to be an opinion that can be argued for and against, not a universal truth that everybody believes already.
But where did students learn this fallacious approach to writing?
From English teachers, of course.
In middle school and often the early years of high school, most English teachers do a unit on “theme.” Students learn how to pick the “theme” out of a story, and to support their choice by using evidence.
And what is theme, you may ask?
The underlying message or lesson that the author is trying to convey to the reader. These often include universal values dealing with life, society or human nature. (www.readworks.org/lessons/concepts/theme)
In other words, theme = universal truth / cliche / overused idea.
So, students learn to approach literature as a process of theme-hunting. What’s the underlying message? Or, a favorite among my students–the “deeper meaning”?
In other words:
What is the over-used, boring, universally known idea that I can find in this work of literature and slap into my thesis statement so I can say something half-way true and uncontroversial about this book so I don’t have to do any real thinking?
Flannery O’Connor puts it this way:
I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners)
I have heard people say things like, “Oh, I loved my high school English class. We learned all about symbolism and deeper meanings, like how water represents cleansing and purification and how the color red is usually a symbol of passion.”
To which I can only respond:
You think you’re feeding the chickens with talk like that, but actually you are choking them to death with boredom.
Today I was helping out with the English Content ACE class at Notre Dame, full of second-year high school and middle school teachers. We were talking about establishing a writing vocabulary with your students, among other things, and this whole idea of cliches and universal truths came up.
One of the middle school teachers had a really insightful question about whether or not we should teach theme at all, since it does encourage students to think in cliches. But she added that for her kids, coming up with “friendship involves being loyal in tough situations” in Harry Potter is actually a big discovery for them a lot of the time. Kids need to learn these messages.
Here’s my thought: in middle school, go ahead and teach theme, even if it means teaching your kids to think in cliches. Push and challenge the stronger students on it if you can (“well, that’s what lots of people would believe about this story, but how could you go deeper?”) but don’t worry too much. Developmentally, universal truths might be age-appropriate for middle schoolers.
But they are not age-appropriate for high schoolers. Or anyone older than that.
For me, cliches are the death of real thought. Where cliches begin, thinking ends. When a high school student says, “Well, I guess that story just really shows us how important it is to be loyal to your friends,” they have, in effect, stopped thinking. They have stopped the conversation. They have resorted to safe and hackneyed ideas that nobody can possibly disagree with. They have closed the book. Even Worse, they have closed their minds.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners)
Now try to wrestle with that, and you’ve got an essay.