Searching for meaning in our English classrooms

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:

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.

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9 Responses to Searching for meaning in our English classrooms

  1. Jim Burke says:

    This is a powerful reflection, Steve. I have Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” right here by my desk. At the heart of your posting, your incredible reflection is a question I ask myself all the time: What is the question my class is trying to answer? What is the idea they are grappling with?

    As far as i can tell, kids are lucky to be living and learning in your space with a teacher who, as Rilke said, is “living the questions.”

  2. Clix says:

    I’m curious – maybe I missed it – what was Shannon’s book?

  3. steveshann says:

    Shannon’s was ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, the first one in the list.

  4. Karen LaBonte says:


    There is such comfort and hope in the image of you and your circle of boys, talking about why a book matters. In her study of long-term teachers, _What Keeps Teachers Going_, Sonia Nieto says that one theme that emerged from the study was that “teaching necessarily involves love and respect.” You call it community. Your kids feel that.

    The threat of meaninglessness has been endemic for as long as I’ve worked with kids. And just as I think it will roll over us all comes your story of kids, in a small circle, talking about books. And I remember that everywhere, teachers sit with their kids and talk about books and the things that matter. What is true. What is just. What is good. Hundreds and thousands of little campfires, blazing against the darkness.

    As always, thanks for your musings.

  5. Augustin says:

    I like this posting, except its ending. That “if” in the final paragraph — I really don’t think teacher support is a “must” (as it may be implied by the use of conditional). I think of it more like a “nice to have.”

    Then again, maybe I misread it… maybe in front of that “if” there’s a hidden “especially,” not “but only.”

  6. steveshann says:

    Thank you for your blessings, Jim and Karen, for that’s what I take them to be, all the more precious from teachers I’ve come to respect so much over the past months.

    And Augustin, you highlight such a big question with your light touch. I think that for some kids it’s ‘nice to have’, for others it’s ‘especially’, and for some it’s ‘but only’. The older I get, the more I see the importance of the last two; is this a comment on my getting older … or more aware … or of the times changing? Maybe all three?

  7. Meraz says:

    God this is going to be fun (note the sarcasm)

    Meaningless. I lose meaning in stories often because I do not wish to trust to the author’s values. Often I do not want to believe in the author, because I am afraid of hipocracy. Often I cannot see the author living by their own morals and idea. I may think their ideas as intellectual, which I do not admire because I seem them as soley as intellectual. I may see the ideas as emotional which loses my trust because to me a writer’s emotional ideas, I see them as having as view limited to their bias. If their ideas are based on experience, I see a sort of selfishness that I do not like. Thus often I do not want to take in these stories anymore than enjoyment. I like stories best when their the author does not pride themselves in anything.

    (by the way I hate what I am doing now because even here I am being selfish, and by stating this I am selfish and so on and so forth…which is why I think JD Salinger shuns the outside world but then again I am probably wrong and I hate that this will probably be read by people who do not know me )

    It looks as if I do not value anything which again is not true. Often I like things recommended by someone else because I have trust in that at least it affected another person. This is my liking of older books. Their is a sort of ill thing in this? i like books imortalized by others suggests either my own insecurity in what I like or my inability to think and derive. Can we just like a book for the book itself?

    The only one modern book I can think of that I have admired for its ideas and its just, its true and so on is Shantaram (there are probably others). And this too is based on a false assumption I had. i believed that the book was a real life account of the man and this stunned me. But even when i found out it was not there was enough truth in what the man has experienced for me to put faith in the book. Also the ideas kept changing and altering and were not constant and there were many of them. But these ideas were embedded into the character well that they did not seem out of context at all. Franny and Zooey is another modern books I like (by modern I mean the author is still alive) but one of the reasons was based on a false assumption. I thought the author was dead. The reason I liked it was because I read the first book and completely agreed on the ideas, read the second which contradicted the first, and was faced to question how quick I was to take up the ideas.

    But remember there are many books by modern writers that I still love to read. But my reasons are value I do not think have to do with meaning. You may menition something about fiction and literature at the moment. But I am not so clever to go there or what it means.

    The fact though I trust old books too is a process that has been always been for there. but I don’t know. in trying to be specific I have undoubtedly lead to conclusions that were easiest to describe or most apparent. The act of trust books in itself is hipocritical. it is like a two way cycle.

  8. steveshann says:

    You write: “It looks as if I do not value anything which again is not true. ” I hope you won’t think me condescending if I say that it is obvious from what you write (as well as from the kind of person I know you to be) that you value many things. ‘Truth’ is one that comes across most strongly in what you write, isn’t it? You value truth. You find it difficult to trust authors who say they tell you the truth, but you certainly value the truth. And there’s something about a book’s ability to survive over a long period of time that you trust, at least a little bit. I think there is a fair bit about the search for goodness in what you write, as well.
    Thankyou for your heartfelt comments.

  9. Susanne says:

    I am about to do this exercise with my students — I hope I ge half of the power you did out of it.

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