Why We Read? (Part VI: Moral Complexity, Understanding Human Nature)

This post is the continuation of the (long, long!) series I’ve been writing about the goals of a good secondary-level reading curriculum. I left off a few posts back describing several initial goals, and below, I continue describing some further ones.

Moral Complexity and Values Clarification

As you can see from the last post in this series, I hit on a point that I think is important to keep in mind, particularly when one imagines encountering a book challenge: Even though it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that one is offering students books that are “windows” into alternative experiences, the question of which windows a teacher is providing is not necessarily an uncontested one.  It is one thing to imagine providing “windows” into the experiences of those one’s community believes should be empathized with; it is quite another to provide students with windows into the experiences of characters of whom one’s community may not entirely approve.  This is the classic case of the progressive teacher who wishes to expose students to literature that seems to question the status quo against a community’s wishes.  My point is not that this is a new case, only that this teacher cannot easily defend himself simply by falling back on the notion of providing alternative viewpoints for students in order to broaden their perspective.  In a sense, he needs a value deeper and more positive than mere exposure.  The same goes, I believe, when one is in a liberal community and is attempting to get students to read books from the past that contain what are considered to be retrograde attitudes or viewpoints or even expressions.  One cannot simply fall back on the notion of providing a “variety of perspectives” when some people so clearly believe that providing a variety of perspectives is a bad idea.  Instead, one needs a more positive defense.

This is where Louise Rosenblatt (as I describe somewhat in the previous post on this topic) help me locate a better, more tangible goal:  the use of literature to help us understand the complex moral and ethical and personal decisions we face as human beings, and the use of that same literature to help us practice how to negotiate these complex situations.

In my view, good literature provides students not with simple moral clarity, but with a rich moral complexity that fosters the development of their own understanding of how to both interpret and to respond to these challenges.  When I think about the educative value of the best literature I read as a student, I think about works that helped me understand the reality of our world better than I ever might have before.  These are works that showed me how there is often much more to people and to the situations they face or have faced than there usually seems to me. 

Let’s start with the first notion and break that down into several parts.  What does it mean to teach students to understand the complexity in the world?  

In my view, it means teaching them several things:

1.  As I stated above, things are often more complex than they seem.  Literature teaches us about the complexity of life:  Relationships and interactions and other people and important moral decisions we face are often nuanced, subtle, hard-to-read, more-than-what-they-seem – and we need to listen carefully, respond judiciously, and take a variety of aspects into account.  Life is rarely black and white, there are rarely pure villains and pure heroes, and we must learn to be perceptive, to refrain from judgment at first, to seek to understand rather than to dismiss, to aim for humility instead of arrogance, and to analyze people and situations slowly and with an open mind.

Literature, by putting us into realistic, life-like situations, can teach us this respect for social and relational nuance.  I think here of my own experience in high school, reading Pride and Prejudice, and realizing, along with Lizzy, that in fact Mr. Darcy was very much not what he seemed at first glance – he was far more complex, more sympathetic, and more deep than she – and I – had imagined.  Then I remember the shock of realization that Mr. Bennett, a character whose wit I admired, was suddenly – and so subtly! – put down by the author herself, with devastating irony, showing him to be far more uncouth and unfeeling than I’d initially imagined.  Good literature teaches us to reserve judgment, to look at people and situations carefully.  In this sense, it teaches us to be more perceptive, to be better at reading and understanding “life.”

Another subtle rub on this instructiveness is that – as with my example of Jane Austen above – literature often teaches us that authors themselves have complex feelings about their stories or characters that are not always evident at first sight.  The author might be ironically detached from a character; the narrator’s voice is not always the author’s.  This is important.  It is a way of teaching students the emulate this authorial remove: to cultivate a kind of wise distance, to pull back from making snap judgments, of reminding them it’s okay and in fact important to be able to hold conflicting views about someone or something, to feel a mixture of emotions, to feel ambivalent because of a variety of causes.  Literature teaches us this natural distance and wise reservation because we learn it from our best authors.

This of course is opposed to the notion that literature should teach students a kind of straightforward morality or virtue; in a sense, good literature confounds those who wish it used to teach students to see absolute good or evil.  Of course literature does teach that there are good and bad characters, those who treat others well and those who treat others poorly, and most of them end up getting just what they deserve.  (Sometimes, of course, they don’t — but life is like that, these works remind us.) But either way, as most of us who are grown have come to realize long ago, the world is rarely that simple, and understanding who is a bad person and why, or what is the morally right thing to do and how, can often take quite a bit of thought and sifting, and literature teaches us even that skill: being able to weigh and consider complex questions of morality, just as complex as they usually are in life.

In short, literature teaches students an appreciation of and an ability to analyze the amazing subtlety and complexity of life.

Values Clarification:  If literature teaches students to understand a more complex, many-layered, nuanced world, one in which moral judgments are rarely black-and-white or easy to make, literature also gives students valuable practice in framing their own responses to these situations, and in doing so, to practice for them, and to clarify their own values.

Literature affords students the chance to vicariously experience realistic, challenging moral and personal choices – both those that are enduring to human beings, and those that are particularly pressing in our society – that are faced by authors, literary characters, and historical figures who employ a variety of attitudes, strategies, and value systems in confronting these situations.  Literature affords students the invaluable practice of navigating these complexities, while analyzing, researching, discussing, and evaluating the choices and decisions made by surrogate actors in books.  A good reading curriculum thus invites students both to understand and to frame their responses to the important social and moral complexities inherent in navigating modern society.  

An Understanding of Human Nature and the Human Condition

This is where things get particularly interesting, I think, because it’s hard to agree on a conception of human nature, and surely many people don’t particularly believe that such a thing exists.  That said, I do. I think that there are fundamental traits that human beings as a species possess, and that, despite the amazing variation of human personalities and human civilizations, and despite the very real differences in outlooks, perspectives, beliefs, and experiences, there’s something fundamental and innate that reaches across our entire species to form a kind of “nature” not untouched by our nurture, but surely still present and important. As a result, I believe that there’s quite a bit that education has to do with human nature.  Good teachers must have an understanding not only of the cultural milieu or the social background of students, but an overriding understanding of the way that human beings of a certain age tend to operate.

Furthermore, education must necessarily carry with it some political vision, and in my view any political vision must reckon hard with the realities of what human beings are like and how best to organize their energies.  This is a huge question, and one that I’ll save for another post.

But to get even more specific, I believe that we teach reading in English Language Arts in part because we need to instruct students not just in the inherent complexity of the world, or in order to teach them to frame their responses to this complexity, but in order to teach them something about what it’s like being a human being – how we interact, how we develop, what the problems are we tend to face over and over again, and how we can solve them.  In short, I believe that the study of literature cannot escape teaching about human nature.  This means, in my view, to teach about a specific set of challenges and opportunities that all of us have by belonging to this species known as human beings.  In some sense, it’s as though we’re preparing students for many of the classic issues that confront us because of the way human beings tend to behave and to respond.  I’m thinking about classic examples that tend to populate high school syllabi and required novel readings:  our search for meaning and identity, our need for friendship, our tendency to fall in and out of love, our need to come of age by distancing ourselves from our parents, our instinctive sense of pity – paired with our tendency to essentialize and to exclude, our fear of death, our need to laugh and to cry.

This is something different, I would caution, than teaching an anodyne notion of how “underneath we’re all really the same.” Instead, it’s about teaching students some of the inherent traps that we tend to fall into.  We get jealous, we don’t listen well, we can’t communicate easily, we fight and are intolerant.  This dovetails perfectly with the goals related above – all of the morally complex situations we should put before students all fit under this rubric of understanding human nature.  So too does the framework of windows and mirrors: it’s not just about ministering to individual students, but about a broad conception of what it means to be human.  One of the values of good literature, I believe, is to force students to reckon with not only the humanity of others, but with their own humanity – with the possibilities inherent in this species, and with the inherent temptations and drawbacks of who we are.  

Read Crime and Punishment and you’re forced to ask yourself whether you, given the feverish conditions of such a time and place, have the same awful impulses inside?  On the other hand, good literature asks you whether you have the strength in you, like Hester Prynne, to hold your head high, to keep silent in order to protect the one you love, even if you were unjustly ostracized by your whole community ?  If you were one of those boys on the island, alone, in Lord of the Flies, would you too descend into murder and tribalism?  (And do you, as a teenager or adult, have those same impulses within?)

This is where the study of literature from the past gets interesting: the question of is it nature or nurture that determines who we are?  Good literature, I think, pushes this question on us, and, I believe, shows us that human nature surely has a big part in who we are.  Is Heart of Darkness, for example, merely a situational example of the sort of colonialism and racism that we rightly now abhor – or is it a haunting vision of what might happen to any of us, no matter how “civilized,” when taken far out of our context and given to the same temptations as was Kurtz?  This is where windows and mirrors blend into something infinitely more complex: Is the great art of the past, problematic as it can be, merely a reflection of a species that in itself is prone — still — to all sorts of problematic behavior?  And if so, is it perhaps right to emphasize with students that, yes, we have moved on, and we condemn the bigotry of the past, but that we’ve only managed to attain this point by a careful reckoning with our own real temptations and patterns of behavior, slowly and painfully, and that all of these same temptations are still deeply within all of us, just behind that “veneer” of civilized mores and right attitudes?

Is the sort of depravity that characters of the past descend into merely the socially constructed attitudes of wayward and bigoted societes that rationalized things that we today would find objectionable or appalling – a relic of time and circumstance and a particular ideology that justified their behavior, something that we today would never do?  

Or is it something located deeper, within all of us, inherent in all human beings and just waiting for the right time to slip out, perhaps even is slipping out right now, in ways that we need to keep on top of?  In Joan Didion’s words, are we right to teach students that perhaps “the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood”?

From my perspective, I think it’s actually quite dangerous to teach students a kind of removed distance from the behavior of human beings from the past.  And I also think that great literature simply doesn’t allow this.  It puts you right there with those characters from long ago, and cuts right across space and time to show you just how little human nature has changed, despite so many differences in convention and outlook.  It reminds us that there’s an important difference between agreeing with a particular belief system, on the one hand, and on the other having within ourselves the same temptations to create different, yet parallel (mistaken, oppressive, exclusionary) belief systems.  History study does this too, of course – by teaching us the errors of the past, lest we be doomed to repeat them.  But literature does this in a very up-close and personal way, a very humanistic way.  It shows us that fundamentally the same impulses are still within us because we share a kind of human nature across what has been, evolutionarily-speaking, barely a nanosecond in our development as a species.  

This is not to dismiss, of course, the clear truth that different people behave and perceive in quite different ways; and a good reading curriculum should of course showcase a wide diversity of experiences, perspectives, and stories.  But I do think that for every moment we emphasize differences, we should also take another moment to bend our thoughts and our students’ back to similarities.  Read the works of the past and learn just how connected you are across the magic of time to human beings from long ago.  Ask yourself if you would fall prey to the same temptations, and ask yourself if you would have been as brave.  Look closely and understand what it is that we as human beings are capable of, and also what we should be wary of.  Perhaps we know more now, but that’s what they thought too – and “knowledge” is always precarious, precious, hard-won, and easily lost. It’s not just errors and triumphs in political and social arrangement that students must learn about in Social Studies class, it’s the human nature behind those successes and failures that they must learn about up close and personal, in the form of real-live human beings from the past — or, at least, the closest thing we have to that.