Students and the Value of Literature: Part 2

For the sake of argument, let’s move beyond critical thinking as a primary goal of the Humanities and the literature classrooms. It’s hard to assess and, if you follow education news, you know that even critical thinking as a desired learning outcome is under attack. What, then, can be left of any value?

One of the brilliant (though, admittedly, problematic) metaphors of Ken Kesey’s masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that of the self-imposed wall (it’s an obvious nod to Plato’s cave, but bear with me). Whether it’s the glass surrounding Nurse Ratchet’s station or the psychological walls of the men who feel they cannot leave the asylum, these barriers shape and are shaped by the inner lives of the novels’ characters. As the main character, McMurphy, points out, the only thing that prevents the men from transgressing these barriers is their own desires to do so.

Similarly, students (like people in general) understand cultural as something that happens beyond the scope of their everyday lives, something one may experience in a classroom, in a theatre, on TV, or in an opera hall, but not something that permeates every aspect of their lives and the human experience. Moreover, they typically understand how they may be shaped by culture, but they are at a loss as to their own power to shape it. For example, for many of them literature and the Humanities in general are one of many arenas where one experiences culture, whether this be understood as the culture of the present, the culture of an other society, or that of the remote past. Within these arenas of experience they themselves are observers, the perceivers, who may indeed actively construct readings of culture and in this sense create meaning, but they do not understand themselves as cultural producers, people who can be observed, the perceived. That is, they unselfconsciously impose a barrier between themselves and the possibility of cultural production beyond their passive reception and replication of what is available in classroom, cable TV, the music industry, and the Internet.

I genuinely believe that the Humanities and literature provide the tools for far greater things than passive receptivity and reproduction. Specifically, they need not be arenas of experience so much as they can be spring boards for the exploration of students’ own ability to create and shape reality. I’ll provide two examples.

One former student of mine decided to run across the state of North Dakota to raise environmental awareness of what fracking is doing in the western part of the state. He also turned in to another professor’s class one of the most thoughtful statements on the invizibilization of minorities that I’ve ever heard of a student producing.

Another former student organized his own independent hip-hop tour and travelled with a some friends from ND to the West Coast and back, performing at numerous stops along the way. Now studying abroad in Spain, he’s taken to performing with the local talent in the Basque Country.

What both of these students’  projects have in common is their profound awareness of how humans can interact with the world that surrounds them, that the world is not a given but something we can shape as it in turn shapes us. Letting students take the reigns of their own learning process and its outcomes is a dangerous notion (apparently) as I attempted on multiple occasions to have a former employer (ahem) promote these students and their work to no avail. And I will confess that de-mystifying cultural production certainly de-mystifies the positions of those like myself who are the supposed gatekeepers of culture. That said, our position isn’t about gatekeeping in terms of letting the elect in and keeping others out but in the sense that one is responsible for the maintenance of what lies behind the gate, for its well being and future.

In both of these cases these former students are not experiencing History, Ecology, Music, Literature, and the Arts as remote objects of study. On the contrary, for them the Humanities are the intellectual foundation of how they shape and are shaped by their world.

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