Flannery O’Connor on Teaching Literature

flannery_600I Just got through reading a fabulous essay by Flannery O’Connor on teaching literature entitled “Fiction is a Subject with a History – It Should Be Taught That Way.”  If only Ms. O’Connor could see today’s situation…her words ring powerfully true today just as, I suspect, they did 50 years ago when she wrote them.  Among the choice passages that struck me this evening in her essay are these:

“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting… No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.”

Wow.  1963?  2013?

I need to ruminate on this quite a bit longer, but this paragraph and the entire essay bears thinking long and hard about.  What is it that we are trying to do in educating children – and, for those of us in higher education, educating young adults?  To what degree are we to be guides, and to what degree facilitators of their interests, letting the educational process go wherever they seem to want to wander?  I’m going to revisit this essay on this blog, but after reading through it for the first time, this paragraph kept ringing in my ears… and I still have trouble placing her words in their proper historical context.  They simply seem to be speaking to us about ourselves today.

On the Reading of Old Books

cslewiswritingatdeskC. S. Lewis has a wonderful piece written as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books”.  In it, he argues for the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present.  His point of view needs to be trumpeted again to today’s young (and old) adults, for it seems to me that we are living in an era in which the voices of the past are almost drowned out beyond hope of hearing by the cacophony of the voices of the present (many of which have a particular distaste for the same voices of the past).

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or in our society.  I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one for our society.  If we live insulated from those voices, we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God and about the world.  We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today”.  We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything older than they are.  This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every year a couple of them have a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives.    These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view”.   This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it – because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves.

That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut.  But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by ridiculous ‘outcome-based’ educational standards that scuttle every effort to truly educate the student.

What’s with the Blog Title?

WalrusCarpenter   “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
   “To talk of many things:
   Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
   Of cabbages–and kings–
   And why the sea is boiling hot–
   And whether pigs have wings.”  

(Lewis CarrollThe Walrus and the Carpenterfrom Through the Looking Glass, 1872)

So goes a favorite stanza of a poem that, when I hear it, always transports me back, way back, to my childhood… and so begins a new blog for me, giving me room to reflect on the life afforded me as a professor in a liberal arts context at Luther College.  While I teach physics primarily, one of the wonderful things that has happened over the past several years is that I have been able to join the faculty who teach in Paideia, our first-year common course that covers, generally, the humanities.  As a freshman at Whitman College many moons ago, I thoroughly enjoyed our core course – which then was divided into three tracks: Great Works, Ancient Greece, and The Origins of Modernism, the last of which I chose.

As the years went on and as I became more and more convinced that I wanted to teach physics in a liberal arts college where genuine conversation across disciplines and divisions of the college were commonplace, and where I could someday teach a course like that which I had.  That vision came to fruition in the fall of 2010, when I was first able to become a member of the Paideia faculty as well as carry my usual load in physics, and I haven’t looked back since.  It’s a great pleasure to be able to straddle the humanities/science divide, and take students along on a journey of discovery as they read works of literature, history and philosophy that they’d otherwise probably not encounter.    I’ve stumbled and gone on with fits and starts, but have grown to truly enjoy this part of my teaching life… and hope to be a part of Paideia for years, nay decades, to come.

This blog is simply an avenue for me to reflect on teaching, particularly in the liberal arts context, but also on the use of the humanities in higher education, the things one can learn through exploration of classic (and not-so-classic) works in the humanities in general, etc.   I’m sure my reflections will expand further into the realm of the general state of education (higher, secondary, primary, home education etc) and the like… but I hope you enjoy and welcome comments and dialog along the way.