Continuing with the theme of transforming education to produce more informed, critically aware democratic participants who will ultimately be able to demand the kind of political leadership they deserve, today I would like to talk about the role that literature, taught through high school English classes, can play in achieving this goal.
For me, literature only succeeds when it engages both our hearts and our minds. Arid tracts that advance philosophical positions devoid of flesh, blood and passion are of no use to anyone, in my view. Fortunately, there is a wealth of good literature that can engage us totally.
Now, before proceeding, I should address something that may have occurred to you. Am I suggesting here that the classroom should be used as some sort of ideological platform? The answer is an unequivocal no. What I am suggesting is that it should be used to teach people that there are a number of sides to an issue, that there is no absolute truth, and that it is incumbent upon individuals to think deeply and critically about issues of import and try, as much as is humanly possible, not to succumb to preconceived ideological positions. That, of course, is easier said than done, but it is an absolute requirement if we are ever to raise ourselves above the current base level of political discourse and leadership.
One other personal note I feel I must add before proceeding: I have never considered myself any kind of a political radical; I believe there is some merit in most parts of the political spectrum, but the problem for me arises when a group, be it left or right (unfortunately, it seems today that the right has most of the media power) insists on the absolute correctness of their position to the exclusion of all others. It is this kind of polarizing philosophy that produces polarized people. If you, for example, insist that private business does everything better, I am as contemptuous of your position as I am of the one which insists that all important businesses should be nationalized. These kinds of extreme positions are, and should be, repugnant to the thinking person. With these provisos in mind, I will continue.
One illustration of literature that appeals to both the heart and the mind is the classic Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Set in the ‘dirty thirties,’ the novel tells the story of dispossessed farmers, leaving behind the dustbowl conditions that have destroyed their livelihoods and traveling to California to begin life anew in a land they have been mislead to believe offers unlimited opportunity. During the course of the novel, which centers on the extended family of the Joads, these migrant workers are mercilessly exploited by selfish landowners. Profit is put before human health, welfare and dignity.
One of the things I used to do in teaching the novel in order to cultivate critical thinking was to ask if Steinbeck was being fair in his portrayal of the wealthy in the novel. Of course, the answer is no, as he only presents one side, the side used to elicit sympathy for his protagonists; we would discuss how almost all writing is manipulative, inasmuch as the author writes with a bias. This is true of both fiction and non-fiction. We then looked at some of Steinbeck’s techniques in creating that bias. This in no way undermined the power of the book, but it did serve as a useful lesson in how the reader has to think and interpret everything he or she reads.
In my next post I would like to talk about some of the other materials I used in this pursuit.