Teaching Reverence Before Breaking It Down

Though she took some time to get there, Arlene Wilner makes a relevant, humbling, and surprisingly funny point about the viewpoint of average college freshman when it comes to reading literature. In direct contract with Scholes, who she otherwise agrees with, Wilner points out that often the difficulty of teaching literature to students is not in getting them to stop revering texts, but rather to get them to care about texts in the first place beyond a basic, shallow understanding (or lack thereof). This reminds me of my personal experience of teaching writing to 5th graders and to high school students. I joke that talking about literature to 5th graders is easy because they are just old enough to be obsessed with reading and just young enough not to be a self-conscious and uncaring middle schooler. On the other hand, high schoolers seem to have the same approach that Wilner observes in college freshman: a distinct inability (or even a refusal) to engage a text without fitting it clumsily into their existing views and opinions, often at the expense of deeper understanding, which Wilner calls “assimilation” (as opposed to “accomodation”). With 5th graders, the difficulty is in moving them beyond the basics of plot, character, and conflict to more detailed, analytical concepts like theme, metaphor, and symbolism; they simply haven’t dealt with these things. But they are not, at least in my experience, resistant to understanding a text regardless of what it might be saying. They are perfectly happy recognizing that the titular character in the Artemis Fowl books is not necessarily a “good” person, as they might have expected from their previous knowledge of stories, and accepting the concept of the antihero, though the terminology would need to be explained to them in a lecture. My students who initially stated that Artemis was a “good” character needed only to be shown places where he was acting in ways that were “not good,” and they revised their interpretation of the books accordingly.

What Wilner is talking about with the college freshman is more akin to my experience with high schoolers; they do not lack understanding of the terminology or of the idea of deep analysis of a text, but they are resistant to it because it is not just a challenge to accomplish, but also often a challenge to their opinions and views. Her examples of students continually misreading an article about corporate influence in journalism and the story “Sonny’s Blues” have echoes of Shulman’s fantasia. These students have developed detailed opinions, tastes, preferences, etc., and moving against those is difficult and a bit scary. Heroin is obviously bad, so Sonny from the aforementioned story must be the person in whom we see significant change; grappling with the changing perspective of the narrator might suggest that the biggest problem here is not drug addiction. It’s a long way away from saying that drug addiction isn’t a bad thing, but what might those students think upon reading On the Road by Kerouac? Every character in that story is drugged out of their minds, and yet the book is hardly one that seeks to deal with the problems of rampant drug abuse. The Catcher in the Rye is often polarizing amongst students because many cannot get beyond Holden Caulfield’s “whiny” nature; they wonder why he can’t just “grow up” and stop being such a spoiled child, ignoring his fairly traumatic journey in the novel and Salinger’s ultimate point that Caulfield values childhood and innocence, spurring his dream about being a “catcher” in the rye, stopping all the children who might fall off the cliff (of adulthood) so that they can continue playing in the fields indefinitely. To many students, the tug-of-war between the responsibility of adulthood and the innocence of childhood is lost in their concern over Holden’s complaining demeanor as if he were literally their peer.

What Wilner suggests through her teaching example is a very astute way of addressing this problem, I think. She uses the narrow, personal reactions of the students to frame larger questions about the piece she assigned, which leads students beyond those personal reactions while still framing the entire discussion in terms of them. This is the difficulty of dealing with the unwillingness or inability of students to move beyond surface readings of texts (“it is/isn’t relevant to me because of my personal experience”); a student’s personal experience and perspective is relevant to the meaning of a story, but it can also be a hindrance, and so teaching students to read stories needs to channel that impulse productively. Before we can do as Scholes suggests and break down established methods and textual reverence, we have to teach students the methods and the reverence in the first place.