Michael Umphrey has recently suggested that we are witnessing a large-scale, slow motion holocaust as students succumb to a sense of meaninglessness.
I have a half dozen preoccupations as a teacher–things that I keep thinking about. One of them is all the boys I have who believe what they have been taught–that all morality is a set of fictions and fables, that all the goodness in history was only a veneer of hypocrisy, that life has no meaning, that they are free to do whatever they want, and that self-gratification is the only important guide. I think we are seeing a large-scale, slow motion holocaust. It’s not so apparent in middle class suburbs, but it’s spreading. [English Companion Ning]
This bleak image of a large-scale, slow motion holocaust has stuck in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it while listening to a group of senior students discussing books that they have valued, in a course called ‘Texts, culture, values’. Can I can detect this slow motion holocaust amongst my students? Have they given up on the search for meaning?
To set the scene, I want to delve a bit deeper into Michael Umphrey’s thoughts. He sees literature as having the potential to make a profound contribution to the search for meaning, in particular in the quest for the true, the good, the just and the beautiful.
Michael often writes about the relationship between certain literature and the true.
… literature matters as a way of exploring the big questions in life as part of a quest to understand life better. The best writers, I think, show us life in ways that allow us to think more clearly, with more subtlety about more important questions… Good books, I would say, show me many useful things to know about my life as a person. Better books empower my thinking about how relationships work and what relationships have value and how we can move forward. The best books deepen and complicate my vision of Creation and the relatedness of all of life. [English Companion Ning]
This search for the true is linked, for Michael, to Enlightenment notions of freedom.
Clarity of thinking would lead to freedom from folly, freedom from error, freedom from false gods, freedom from deception. [Michael’s blog on English Companion Ning]
Just as can find the true in our big stories, so also we can find the good. “ I think all stories are unavoidably moral,” he says. They are an antidote to the “moral confusion [which] is the great educational problem of our age.”
Helping someone see, through fictional characters, what actions tend to make durable relationships possible and what moves tend to make them unlikely is not performing a therapeutic act. The student need never say a thing about his or her own relationships. When I am talking about Lear’s children, I am pointedly not talking about anyone in the classroom. But if an increased understanding of the human heart leads to a bit more wise or moral conduct, then that student has become, through education, a bit more free. [English Companion Ning]
The third pre-occupation of the literature we should teach, Michael implies, is the just.
I sometimes think they need happy stories about the birth of kings (which is the coming into the world of justice). I think they need to know of better worlds, and how they are built and held together, and what strengths of character are needed. [English Companion Ning]
And then there is the beautiful. In so many of his eloquent posts, Michael conveys his sense that he finds certain literature intensely beautiful. Another English Companion Ning contributor, J. D. Wilson Jnr, speaks directly about this.
I teach the books I teach because I find them sublime and beautiful and I hope my students can come to appreciate the beautiful and the sublime. [English Companion Ning]
He understands the difficulties involved in reading some of these texts.
I am dyslexic and reading is very difficult (it was all through school for me) and requires more time for me than it seems to require for others but it has always been worth the investment of time … A student should not have to wrestle with Chaucer, Morrison, Shikibu, or Scheherazade or any author if the text itself does not have a value that makes the wrestling match worth the time spent wrestling with it. But too often, I think as a culture, we expect immediate pleasure or gratification, we do not want to tough it out. [English Companion Ning]
But are our students willing to make the effort? Do they see the point? Or is Michael right, that is this large-scale slow moving holocaust taking place, where students are turning away from any sense of purpose or meaning in life. Increasingly, he warns, our students are not interested in what literature (and culture, tradition, community, history and religion) might offer them.
So I observe my Year 11 class. Are the boys in my class searching, in literature, for the true, the good, the just and the beautiful?
My fifteen students are not typical. (Who is?) They are all boys, they go to a traditional private school, and they have all opted to do an Extension English course. Nevertheless, I’ve found similar yearnings and views amongst many other less eloquent students. So I want to tell the story of what happened in this class last week.
On Tuesday, my fifteen students all brought in a book that, for whatever reason (this was entirely up to them) they valued. The books were:
- The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix (brought in by Shannon)
- Edward’s Quiet Book, a colorful cloth book made for Ed by his aunt when he was a baby, with buttons and zips and flaps and textures for him to explore
- Earth Is Room Enough a collection of stories by Isaac Asimov (Daniel D)
- Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer (Matt)
- Wild Swans by Jung Chang (Cameron)
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Michael)
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Tom)
- The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by Mark Herman (Will)
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowlings (Daniel P)
- 1984 by George Orwell (Monty)
- Brisingr by Christopher Paolini (Corey)
- Lord of the Rings by J.R. Tolkein (David)
- The Pooh Story Book by A. A. Milne (Lukas)
- Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (Akira)
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Amani)
- Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood (my book)
We sat in a circle and each of us talked about why we valued our book. Then the boys wrote about this in their Ning blogs.
What came out of this? Well, in their own ways, the boys talked about the true, the good, the just and the beautiful.
For many of them, their chosen book opened their eyes. The books spoke about what was true: true about their own national histories (Amani and Akira), true about the dark side of human nature (Tom, Will, Monty), or true about worlds and experiences very different from their own (Cameron, Daniel D and Matt). Amani described his book as being “rich with truth and intelligent reflections”.
As the boys talked and then wrote about their books, there was also a thirst to read about what was good and just. Whether thinking about life in the trenches, in a concentration camp, coping with the consequences of fallout after Hiroshima, surviving during Mao’s cultural revolution, or experiencing cultural and personal dissolution in Africa, the boys were wanting to talk about what was right and just. This applied not only to the non-fiction. Corey wrote of the main character in Brisingr:
how his life is completely and utterly changed, how he has to move and adapt to his new life, how he is put through absolute hell and has to rise to the situation. This was my valued text as I believe it beautifully and succinctly describe exceptional mental and physical endurance and strength of its main character, his perseverance and strength of character which allowed him to endure some very intense trials.
And then there was the beautiful. Some of the boys (Michael and Will, for example) found it in the author’s voice. Others, like Daniel R, Lukas and Shannon, found it in the worlds that the author created. Lukas wrote about The Pooh Story Book:
… Especially at a young age I had always thought, and somewhat wished, that the Hundred Acre Woods were a real place and constantly wondered if it really existed. Because of this the book became a kind of escape from the real world into much more of a simple and enjoyable lifestyle.
Even as I write this blog, several more reasons come to mind [about why] I value this book. I begin to think that maybe it isn’t the actual book that I value, but the actual idea of such a place with such characters and with such a way of living. I now realise that the stories and characters that were created by A. A. Milne never really had a background. Even though they are children’s stories that need no background, the fact that there is no past to worry about or to dwell upon as you read the stories has something to do with the enjoyment and relaxation I get out of reading them…
When I am reading the book, it almost seems as if it was being recited off by heart out of the head of an old man who has recited [it] over and over and has eventually fallen in love with the stories themselves.
And there was another strong element present. It’s not easy to find words for this. It’s something to do with belonging, attachment and community. It’s also something to do with love. Many of the students – a majority probably – talked about how the book was important because of its associations. Ed’s book was lovingly made for him by his aunt. Shannon’s book gave him access to a community of fantasy lovers that had previously been closed to him. Daniel D’s father had loved the Asimov book and that was a spur to Daniel reading it. Amani came to his book through a conversation with a respected teacher. Daniel P and David felt that their books had been milestones in their membership of the community of real readers. Lukas’s book was read to him by his parents.
My students value certain books because they’re searching for the true, the good, the just and the beautiful. They also value them because the books are part of their connection to others.
These others include us as their English teachers.
J.D. Wilson Jnr wrote in the English Companion Ning:
I try to use blogs and podcasts and movies and photographs and music and anything I can get my hands on that will help students see the value of reading difficult texts; to help them see what it is about the literature that moves me and shapes me. [English Companion Ning]
So, are we in a world where pessimism, cynicism and a premature disillusionment is spreading, where we’re on the brink of what Michael Umphrey has called “a large-scale, slow motion holocaust”? Quite possibly. There are signs of it in my English class, if I listen hard enough.
But there are other signs as well. In sometimes fumbling and sometimes very articulate ways, our students are saying that they are looking for something substantial, something that helps them find meaning, and that they want our encouragement and support in helping them to make the effort.
Are they willing to make the effort? Yes, if they’re supported by fiercely passionate teachers like Michael Umphrey and J. D. Wilson Jnr, who keep reminding us that literature matters.