Arlene Wilner’s “Confronting Resistance: Sonny’s Blues—and Mine,” asks us to think about something we don’t think about—and certainly don’t talk about—enough in pedagogical education: What, ethically speaking, is the role of education? And what is the moral role of the teacher? The problem is that these questions are weighed with a thousand prerequisites: Is education primarily an ethical construct? Are teachers moral agents? If education is ethically grounded, does that mean all education must be ethically oriented? Do we teach ethics when we teach literature? Can we teach ethics when we teach literature? Are we morally compelled to teach ethics when we teach literature? Conversely, can we not teach ethics when we teach literature? And so on. Unfortunately, Arlene Wilner’s essay, which was a clumsy mash of ethics, literacy, and critical thinking, only addressed these questions with via-negativa response of, ‘Not this way.’
As I see it, the big problem is that we don’t study ethics; we never think about morality critically. We “learn” ethics from our parents, and not surprisingly, we spend our lives working off those teachings, those assumptions, our life experiences, and maybe one or two texts we read in a philosophy 101 class. I don’t think Wilner ever took a philosophy class at any level, but in “Confronting Resistance” she suggests that we use our literary critical thinking skills in the literature classroom to enter a philosophical depth wrought with emotional, cultural, and experiential barricades (never mind that depths like this are hard enough to access when approached directly, in a dedicated study of ethics). While there are a number of points I’d like to make, first and foremost it must be stated that this approach is ridiculous because before we can really talk about ethics we have to figure out what ethics is. Where does morality come from? That is the first question that has to be considered. But that question alone takes longer than a university’s greater curriculum is willing to account for. Ethically speaking, it seems that all education students ought to take a course on ethics, but even in this event the product would be questionable. I spent three years of my philosophy major studying ethics and personally I’m comfortable discussing the ontology of morality (which, in the Aristotelian tradition, was the first and most major component of the branch of philosophy called Ethics and had roots in Plato’s early dialogue Euthyhro), but I don’t feel capable or comfortable of actively engaging students in an ethical discussion that will ultimately be severely—if not misleadingly—abbreviated.
Wilner’s example of the “homophobia” in one of her classrooms is a treatise on what happens when you gloss over fathomless depths. First, she defines reading as “sympathetic engagement”—sympathy here being a sort of handicapped understudy of ethics and one of the few things our culture is comfortable believing in. Then she engages students in a story which many of them believe to be indecent. They do not believe they should be forced to read something that is outside of their moral code. This moral code—which is not sympathetic or understanding of people that exist outside of it—is not in line with the morals “of the academy.” Wilner than devises a number of assignments that loosen the “rebellious” students from their position so that, in the end, they can sympathize with the homosexual protagonist. Of course, Wilner does not account for their prejudice as being a moral code. The students go out of their way to tell her that they are not ‘homophobic’—they do not fear gay people—they “hate them.” For Wilner, their hatred is not saturated in a belief of one thing which cannot allow another (say, what many evangelicals have turned Natural Law—a legitimate philosophic theory—into); it is not complicated, legitimate, and certainly not educated. In coming to this immediate conclusion (which is what her society has propelled her to do) she ignores their cultural background, undermines their moral code, and fails to acknowledge their insight: That her ultra-sympathetic culture, which labels all people who look down on homosexuals as “homophobes,” portrays their prejudice as cowardice—not cultural casualty, lineage, or malice.
Of course, I’m not defending homophobia—but I am using my critical thinking skills to reflect on the narrative that Wilner presents. Wilner says this of her students thinking abilities, “Without such supporting concepts, students naturally rely on habitual patterns of reaction, often shaped by unexamined emotions that encourage them to convert nuanced, complex relationships (among characters or ideas) into simplistic, distorted ones,” and it is hard to not be indignant. She goes on to say, “In extreme cases, as in the rebellion in my class, students may simply refuse to do the reading if they do not like what it is “about.”
Finally—assuaging the indignation here—I think the point can be made a little more relatively to the matter at hand: How should we teach literature? Wilner makes what I would call a confined cultural breakthrough with some of her students. I believe that breakthrough won’t ever amount to much because the underlying issues—the real issues, not their materialization—have been wholly ignored, as have their potential implications. And they have been necessarily ignored: Wilner doesn’t have the time or the capacity to treat ethical issues in a way that I think ethics ought to be discussed. But at any rate, the breakthrough happened, and not much critical thinking coincided with it. Getting a student to imagine what a homosexual might write to his mother does not demand a large amount of critical thinking skills. Her response to the assignment series was that, “The students had taken a step toward enhanced literacy and an understanding of multiple perspectives that William G. Perry Jr. (1970: 54) persuasively argues is essential to moral maturity.” But are we here to facilitate moral maturity or help students to think critically? If we’re here to help student evolve morally then why don’t we have a class that is dedicated to it? I’ll argue that critical thinking is necessary for moral maturity, but you have to have the critical thinking skills to really mature; her example was more giving a fish than teaching how to fish. You can see this when she talks about the problems her students had with the highly literary task involved in Baldwin’s Sonny Sings the Blues. The questions she asks her students about this story—“Why do you suppose the author chose to have his narrator begin here, at this point in his life? What is the effect of the flashbacks and of their placement at specific points in the narrative? More fundamentally, why does Sonny’s brother tell this story instead of Sonny himself, and how would the story be [End Page 190] different if told from Sonny’s point of view?”—are very much beyond what her students were asked in the other example. It seems to me that teaching literature and, through it, critical thinking is hard enough as it is—better leave trying to force moral maturity and all its baggage to something other or later than 101.