This may seem like a curious book for me to choose, considering how much I read and how much I love to read. But periodically, I get into these funks and wonder why fiction matters. “What,” as Haroun asks his father in the parable Haroun and the Sea of Stories, “is the point of stories that aren’t even true?”
These moments in my life, together with my introduction to what is, in my world, being called 21st Century Education or Learning-in-Depth, make me wonder about the future of stories.
Edmonson thinks he has the answer or at least the response. He would probably claim that he has multiple answers and that these multiple paths represent the democracy that literature affords, but it takes him over 100 pages to even mention an author of color.
If the study of literature is, as he argues (pretty persuasively), meant to help make us better, Edmonson shies away from the difficult work here – What is better? He employs the full thesaurus to try to avoid calling a book ‘great’ (though he does use that word), but given the examples he provides (and the ones that are omitted), what are we to infer about his sense of the multiple paths? About the range of texts he would have us hand to our students?
The emphasis on self-knowledge concerns me as well. Edmonson wants us to start with helping our students know themselves, to know what they believe, before they examine the worlds and ways of others. But students are often too self-involved to begin with, too interested in their own stories. I’m not denying that it’s useful to have them challenge their own stories or their own privilege, but I’m not sure I’d start so overtly with that.
Edmonson also puts a lot of power in the hands of the teacher. Literature teachers are, in his view, supposed to help their students find ways to better (there’s that word again) selves. I’ve known a great number of teachers in my time. There can be a tendency among some of them to think they should be teaching life and not literature. Based on what I know of their lives, that doesn’t make me very comfortable. I agree with Edmonson that we should encourage our students to be open to influence, but I’d like the primary influence to be the writers and not the teachers.
Edmonson does challenge (rightly, I think) the traditional critical essay and what’s become a superficial phrase (“critical thinking”). I’m eager to share his section on historicizing literature with many colleagues. There’s too much reliance on Freud throughout, particularly in the rather dismissive section on Shakespeare.
Edmonson wants to know whether we can “live” the pieces of literature we teach and uses this premise to dismiss Dickens, for he offers no solutions.
For all of these concerns, Edmonson’s words are needed now, as we face the onslaught of education based on problem-solving and action. Where is the place for contemplation? I also do not get much of a sense of joy from Edmonson. Does literature – even literature we teach – always have to make our lives better? Can’t we learn to relish an artist at work? Can’t we laugh?
A liberal education still matters. In fact, I’d argue, it’s more necessary now than ever. We must engage with the words and discover our own answer or response to Haroun’s question. What is the point of stories that aren’t even true? We make our world with words. Indeed our world (in both the Bible and in Our Town) is made my words. We have to learn how to read them.