I was discussing earlier the role that literature can play in cultivating critical thinking. One of the most important means by which this goal can ultimately be achieved is through exposure to a variety of viewpoints, an area in which literature truly excels.
One of my favorite playwrights to teach was Arthur Miller. A man of integrity, blacklisted for his refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee which had its heyday in the McCarthy Era, Miller wrote, amongst many other works, The Crucible. The play, inspired by the madness of McCarthyism, revolves around the Salem witch hunts of 1692. A powerful piece of literature for any era, it addresses what happens when a society, gripped by hysteria, abandons logic and common sense and turns on its fellow citizens. The worst aspects of human nature emerge as the play progresses: jealousy; lust; greed; self-preservation at any cost. In the midst of the quagmire stands John Proctor, a man who, despite his high standing within the Puritan community, is deeply flawed, having secretly committed adultery with an adolescent servant, Abigail. From his religious perspective, he is condemned in the eyes of God, yet, after enduring a lengthy crucible (one of the word’s meanings is ‘a severe or trying test’) he is able to find “his goodness,” what we today would call his integrity, by refusing to lie in order to save himself from hanging after having been falsely accused and convicted of witchcraft.
One of the many benefits of teaching this play is that it affords students the opportunity to explore the concept of integrity, for some quite a novel notion. As a class, we would examine how Proctor ultimately places the needs of his community above his own interests. By refusing to falsely confess to witchcraft, a confession that would save his life, he takes a stand against the injustice of the witch hunts. The point is made in the play that because he has standing and reputation in the community, he accepts his responsibility to that community by refusing to further the evil, even if it means he must pay the ultimate price.
Predictably, some students saw his sacrifice as a meaningless gesture, while others appreciated it as a rich symbolic act. Again, the purpose of the discussion was not to convince students of anything, just to expose them to a concept and discuss it accordingly.
I like to think that it at least provided an alternative view to the very utilitarian times in which we live.