Tag Archives: Politics and teaching

How the Study of Literature Could Save Democracy

Beowulf MS, picture from Wikipedia

Usually, I am not one to make grand claims for my discipline. There was a time, back when I was a young graduate student in the 1980s, that I would have; perhaps even more recently, I might have argued that understanding ideology through literary theory and criticism is essential to understanding current events and the conditions we live in. But I no longer believe that.

Perhaps in saying this publicly, I’m risking some sort of banishment from academia. Maybe I will have to undergo a ritual in which I am formally cashiered, like some kind of academic Alfred Dreyfus, although instead of having my sword broken in half and my military braids ripped to shreds, I will have my diploma yanked from my hands and trampled on the ground before my somber eyes. Yet unlike Dreyfus, I will have deserved such treatment, because I am in fact disloyal to my training: I don’t believe literary theory can save the world. I don’t think it’s necessary that we have more papers and books on esoteric subjects, nor do I think it’s realistic or useful for academics to participate in a market system in which the research they produce becomes a commodity in their quest for jobs, promotions, or grant opportunities. In this sense, I suppose I am indeed a traitor.

But recently I have realized, with the help of my friend and former student (thanks, Cari!), that literature classes are still important. In fact, I think studying literature can help save our way of life. You just have to look at it this way: it’s not the abstruse academic research that can save us, but rather the garden-variety study of literature that can prove essential to preserving democracy. Let me explain how.

I’ll begin, as any good scholar should, by pointing out the obvious. We are in a bad place in terms of political discourse–it doesn’t take a scholar to see that. Polarizing views have separated Americans into two discrete camps with very little chance of crossing the aisle to negotiate or compromise. Most people are unwilling to test their beliefs, for example, preferring to cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence. As social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris point out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.” They use the term “cognitive dissonance,” which means the sense of disorientation and even discomfort one feels when considering two opposing viewpoints, to explain why it is so hard for people to change their ideas.

To those of us who study literature, the term “cognitive dissonance” may be new, but the concept certainly is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, in an essay which is largely forgotten except for this sentence, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up,Esquire Magazine, February 1936). In addition, cognitive dissonance isn’t that far removed from an idea expressed by John Keats in a letter he wrote to his brothers back in 1817. He invents the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ability to remain in a liminal state of doubt and uncertainty without being driven to come to any conclusion and definitive belief. Negative capability, in other words, is the capacity to be flexible in our beliefs, to be capable of changing our minds.

I believe that the American public needs to develop negative capability, lots of it, and quickly, if we are to save our democracy.

But there’s a huge problem. Both Fitzgerald and Keats believe that this function is reserved only for geniuses. In their view, a person is born with this talent for tolerating cognitive dissonance: you either have it–in which case you are incredibly gifted–or you don’t. In contrast, Aronson and Tavris clearly believe it’s possible to develop a tolerance for cognitive dissonance: “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty…” While their belief in our ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and to learn from it is encouraging, it is sobering that they do not provide a clear path toward fostering this tolerance.

So here’s where the study of literature comes in. In a good English class, when we study a text, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beowulf, students and teacher meet as more or less equals over the work of literature in an effort to find its meaning and its relevance. Certainly the teacher has more experience and knowledge, but this doesn’t–or shouldn’t–change the dynamic of the class: we are all partners in discovering what the text has to say in general, and to us, specifically. That is our task. In the course of this task, different ideas will be presented. Some interpretations will be rejected; some will be accepted. Some will be rejected, only to be later accepted, even after the space of years (see below for an example).

If we do it well, we will reach a point in the discussion where we consider several differrent suggestions and possibilities for interpretation. This is the moment during which we become experts in cognitive dissonance, as we relish interpretive uncertainty, examining each shiny new idea and interpretation with the delight of a child holding up gorgeously colored beads to the light. We may put a bead down, but it is only to take up another, different one–and we may well take up the discarded bead only to play with it some more.

The thing that makes the study of literature so important in this process is that it isn’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. To my knowledge, no one has ever been shot for their interpretation of Hamlet; the preservation of life and limb does not hang on an precise explanation of Paradise Lost. If we use the study of literature as a classroom designed to increase our capacity for cognitive dissonance, in other words, we can dissipate the highly charged atmosphere that makes changing our minds so difficult. And once we get used to the process, when we know what it’s like to experience cognitive dissonance, it will be easier to for us to tolerate it in other parts of our lives, even in the sphere of public policy and politics.

If I seem to be writing with conviction (no cognitive dissonance here!), it’s because I have often experienced this negative capability in real time. I will give just two examples. The first one occurred during a class on mystery fiction, when we were discussing the role of gossip in detective novels, which then devolved into a discussion on the ethics of gossip. The class disagreed violently about whether gossip could be seen as good or neutral, or whether it was always bad. A loud (and I mean loud!) discussion ensued, with such force that a janitor felt compelled to pop his head into the classroom–something that I had never seen happen either before or since then–to ask if everything was ok. While other teachers might have felt that they had lost control of the classroom, I, perversely, believe that this might have been my most successful teaching moment ever. That so many students felt safe enough to weigh in, to argue and debate passionately about something that had so little real importance suggested to me that we were exercising and developing new critical aptitudes. Some of us, I believe, changed our minds as a result of that discussion. At the very least, I think many of us saw the topic in a different way than we had to begin with. This, of course, is the result of experiencing cognitive dissonance.

My second example is similar. At the end of one very successful course on Ernest Hemingway, my class and I adjourned for the semester to meet at a local bar, at which we continued our discussion about The Sun Also Rises. My student Cari and I got into a very heated discussion about whether the novel could be seen as a pilgrimage story. Cari said it was ; I vehemently disagreed. The argument was fierce and invigorating–so invigorating, as a matter of fact, that at one point a server came to inquire whether there was something wrong, and then a neighboring table began to take sides in the debate. (For the record, I live in Hemingway country, and everyone here has an opinion about him and his works.) Cari and I left the bar firmly ensconced in our own points of view, but a couple of years ago–some three years after the original argument occurred–I came to see it from Cari’s point of view, and I now agree with her that The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a sort of pilgrimage tale. It took a while, but I was able to change my mind.

It is this capacity to change one’s mind, I will argue, that is important, indeed, indispensable, for the democratic process to thrive.

In the end, it may well be that the chief contribution that good teachers of literature make to culture is this: we provide a safe and accessible place for people to learn what cognitive dissonance feels like, and in doing so, we can help them acquire a tolerance for it. This tolerance, in turn, leads to an increase in the ability to participate in civil discourse, which is itself the bedrock of democratic thought and process. In other words, you can invest in STEAM classes all you want, but if you really want to make people good citizens, do not forget about literature courses.

In view of this discovery of mine, I feel it’s my duty to host a noncredit literature class of sorts in the fall, a discussion-type newsletter that covers the great works of English literature–whatever that means–from Beowulf to the early Romantic period, in which discussion is paramount. If you’re interested or have suggestions, please let me know by commenting or messaging me, and I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.

And in the meantime, keep your minds open! Cognitive dissonance, uncomfortable as it is, may just be what will keep democracy alive in the critical days to come.


Filed under Criticism, culture, Education, Literature, Politics, Teaching

Teaching Behind the Lines

French resistance fighters putting up posters

French Resistance Fighters putting up posters.  Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)

It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.

But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.

Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.

The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.

Here is my list:

  1. In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
  2. I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
  3. I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
  4. I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
  5. I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.

All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.

I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.


Filed under culture, Education, Politics, Retirement, Teaching, The Arts, Travel

My Short, Unhappy Life as a Politician



Four years ago, I made a decision that turned out to be a mistake–a real whopper of one. I ran for state representative. It is a decision that I still regret today.

Why would I, a political innocent, so to speak, decide to run for office? The extent of my experience in the political world at that time was knocking on doors fo2009-01-07-shepardobamaposter.jpgr Barack Obama back in 2008. I knew next to nothing about the real political climate. I was naive and optimistic, and, excited by the events in Zuccotti Park (the Occupy Wall Street movement), I thought I saw real possibility to be the  change that President Obama had called for. I thought I could make a difference–that my very innocence in the realm of politics might make me more credible and hence more  attractive to voters. Of course, I can see now, at a distance of almost four years, that I was not just naive, but downright stupid. It probably isn’t the first time a candidate has been motivated by silly, misguided ideas.

The real question is this, however: why did I, a person with a more than adequate supply of humility, decide to run in the first place? What made me think I could make any kind of a difference? I’ve been considering that question for the last three years. Looking back, I see there was a perfect storm of situations that made me believe that it was not only my right, but my duty to run for office. First of all, as a community college professor, I was teaching writing and public speaking to a population of largely underprivileged students. I realized that not only could I gain valuable experience as a teacher if I ran, but that I could also serve as an example to my students. After all, at the end of every semester, I would offer both my writing and my speech students this parting advice: “Now you know how to raise your voices. Go out and do it. Make trouble for other people. Be good citizens.” Running for office was a chance for me to practice what I preached, and it would help make me a better teacher.


Primary Night Tally

(Side Note: This much was true. I did learn a lot from campaigning, which I tried to incorporate into the tiny textbook I wrote for my speech students. I used what skills I had in writing and in public speaking several times a day, and I found that teaching those practical skills was both meaningful and necessary. I do think I became a better teacher by running for office.)

Second, my position as a community college professor in a very rural area allowed me to see that the people whom recent legislation hurt were my students. I felt obliged to help them as much as I could. Third, as union president, I was also able to see the willful ignorance and arrogance of those in office. Fourth, my husband is a whiz at numbers and finance, and I knew he would make a fine campaign manager, and that by sharing the experience with me, we could be partners in a greater good. Fifth, I knew many people in my town, and they all told me they thought my candidacy was a good idea.

All of these things added up to a feeling of excited inevitability, which then turned into a sense of obligation to run. The only way I can describe the result of this transformation is to compare it to a statement found not once, but three times in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart: “There are things you have to do even if they are dangerous, otherwise you aren’t a human being but just a bit of filth.” This may be overstating the case a bit, but at the time, I really felt that if I didn’t run, I would be shirking an important responsibility, and that I would be avoiding an unsavory but necessary duty.

The result of all this will not be a surprise. I lost–and by a hefty margin. I don’t mind losing the election; it was probably the best thing that could happen to me personally. But I lost more than the election, and that’s what really bothers me. Somewhere along the way, I lost my my faith in a political system that unabashedly favors those with large campaign coffers. I lost my desire to talk to and get to know people, which had been so useful in the classroom, and which I am only now regaining. I lost a good deal of self confidence, too, because I saw the limit of my own ability. Most tragic of all, I lost what had started me on my journey in the first place: hope.


Even a wonderful group of supporters can’t guarantee a victory.

For three years, I have tried not to talk about my abortive foray into politics. To be honest, I look upon it as if it were a stupid stunt I pulled while on a bender, as if I woke up one morning to remember that pulling off my clothes and jumping into the fountain was not a dream, but a horrible reality. And, like a hungover college student on Monday morning, I now regard my actions while under the influence with a sense of bemused shame:  I’m impressed with the enormity of my mistake, because I should have known better than to have exposed myself.

But I am healing from my experience, and perhaps the best evidence of this is my willingness to analyze my feelings about running for office. I offer up this post as a testament to a person’s ability to recover, if not to learn, from unpleasant experiences.


A collector’s item




Filed under Education, Politics, Teaching, Writing