Ecclesiates 1:18 …Wisdom and Vexation, Knowledge and Sorrow: Bidding Farewell to An Essay Prompt

[In searching for some old documents related to our study of poetry in my English 9 class, I stumbled (can one stumble into an old computer file?) into an old exam question I used when I taught AP Literature. I like the question, and I used it in slightly varied ways over the course of several years at Asheville School. It is a remarkably pliable prompt—the names of the pieces of literature can vary widely, perhaps endlessly. Since I am retiring the question (it’s time!)—I thought I would share it here. In each English course I have taught I have emphasized the importance of intentionally bringing past reading experiences to bear on the works we read. We become better readers as we read more, and as we allow those experiences to inform our reading of the next work on the syllabus. This prompt is related to that emphasis in that it asks students to bring their past reading experiences to bear on a challenging idea they had not thought directly about before in order to reach both an understanding of the quotation from Ecclesiastes and a heightened understanding of the the works in the course.]

Written around the Third Century BCE, a Hebrew sage, teacher, philosopher, and writer created what we now call the Book of Ecclesiastes.  In it, this writer, whose name in Hebrew, “Qoheleth”, means “teacher” or “preacher”, attempted to find the meaning of life through reason.  Probably inspired by Greek philosophers, this author left us some of the most quotable lines in the Hebrew Bible, and he wrestled with some of the same ideas that we have struggled with this semester.

In our reading this semester, knowledge is often dangerous.  Even though Qoheleth never read Hamlet, Candide, Gulliver’s Travels, All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, or Frankenstein, he may give us some insight into the nature of knowledge:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

In an organized, well-planned and competently executed essay, choose three characters from our work this semester who find “much vexation” and “increase[d] sorrow” from some kind of knowledge.  I encourage you to think carefully and creatively in choosing your characters—I believe there are many valid choices you might make.  For instance, not only is Hamlet a good choice, but Laertes, Ophelia, the Ghost, Claudius would also provide fertile ground for analysis.

In your essay compare and contrast your choices.  It is important to reveal both your specific knowledge of the characters and your ability to draw conclusions and make assertions based on your understanding of their roles.  In your conclusion discuss which of your choices is the most successful (or you may choose an adjective of your own) in coping with his or her “vexation”.   (By the way, “vexation’ means ‘uneasiness’, ‘trouble’, ‘annoyance’.)

[Perhaps someday I will use a version of this prompt again; however, it is a good challenge to reinvent the wheel every once in a while, and besides, I am not sure this would be a great prompt for my ninth graders though they are up for challenges of their own. By letting go of what is familiar in order to reach for something more, teachers do what we ask students to do all the time–let go (while making sure to bring along the experience that can define our next step). Like students we are called to expand our own knowledge and make meaning from it despite the various levels of “vexation” this may cause.]

4 thoughts on “Ecclesiates 1:18 …Wisdom and Vexation, Knowledge and Sorrow: Bidding Farewell to An Essay Prompt

  1. John Burk January 19, 2012 / 10:42 pm

    I agree with you that it’s a good challenge to re-invent the wheel from time to time. Of course there are ways to do this both large and small, but I draw great energy from trying to develop a new course, a new unit, or a new assignment. This year, I simply gave my students a copy of my final exam from the previous year to use as another resource to practice for the exam. When I had to create a new exam from scratch in the week before, I was seriously annoyed with myself for a few moments, but in the end the exercise was useful for stretching me to develop new and more interesting questions.

    I wonder what schools can do to encourage this creative reinvention in both faculty and students, while still maintaining enough tradition and things that work to not feel completely at sea.

    • J Ross Peters January 19, 2012 / 10:58 pm

      Thanks for this, John. The need for balance that your second paragraph identifies is central I believe. In fact, I think the ability to “reinvent the wheel” can only happen well when there is some context for learning based both in the aspirational language of the school and in the valuable tradition of learning and teaching in the school.

  2. Bartley Griffith January 19, 2012 / 11:34 pm


    Thanks for your compelling post about “retiring” an assignment. I also like the idea of putting an assignment “on extended leave” or “sabbatical.” With some time off, perhaps old Ecclesiastes will come back renewed and refreshed, ready to challenge those 9th graders one again. I am willing to bet that he has been put down and picked countless time in the last few thousand years. I think he can handle it.


  3. J Ross Peters January 20, 2012 / 2:34 pm

    “I think he can handle it”: No doubt, Bart. I am looking forward to re-reading Ecclesiastes–perhaps this summer…Good reading and I am certain there is another prompt or two in his book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s