A couple weeks ago I started thinking about what I wanted to teach for my last class of the semester. I think endings are really important, really necessary in tying something all together and locking it in your brain in a certain context that invites you to revisit what you’ve learned. I hate having to end with a test or project, and up until this semester, I’ve always had to.
This semester, I taught an introduction to literature course and as the final days drew closer, I kept on telling James, “I just want them to know why it matters, reading literature.” He kept kindly reminding me that the average student doesn’t care why it matters, just wants the credit and an A and to get to summer. But what are teachers if not perpetual idealists, people who genuinely believe in the importance of their subject, even if no one else does? As a teacher of French literature, I like to think I have the market pretty cornered on “potentially useless subjects that people undervalue,” but still… I want it to matter, because it matters to me.
I want them to know that all these poems, short stories, excerpts from books and plays, matter because they all reflect some author’s attempt to understand humanity a little better and share it with the world. I want them to see Molière’s portraits in their fellow man and take pity on the lesser members of society like Zola’s Grand Michu. I want them to see the world through the different lenses of post-colonialism, feminism, and poetry that we spent the semester studying. I want them to know that humanity comes in so many different backgrounds, shapes, sizes, colors, temperaments, and stories, and that literature shows us that. I want them to see the world just a little bit clearer because they sat in my class for a semester.
About a week before the end of the semester I came across an amazing article for another class about how literature cultivates our narrative imagination, and thus our humanity. The author, Martha Nussbaum, argues that literature allows us to understand someone different than us and thus shapes our compassion. I kept on coming back to this quote over and over:
“Some characters feel like us, and some repel easy identification. But such failures to identify can also be sources of understanding. Both by identifying and by its absence, we learn what life has done to people. A society that wants to foster the just treatment of all its members has strong reasons to foster an exercise of the compassionate imagination that crosses social boundaries, or tries to. And this means caring about literature.”
Along with a French article, I gave my students an excerpt of this text for them to read for the last day. Then, before a boring review on grammar, we had a discussion about what good all they had learned this semester could serve outside of the classroom. I think they got it. They shared what they had learned from different things we read, and my little teacher heart just about burst. It’s also possible they were bored, or just trying to indulge me, or didn’t understand the French discussion. Those are always possibilities in a language classroom. But I like to think that at least one or two students got it, understood why all this literature matters. And that’s enough.
“I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” –Marilynne Robinson
*You can read the entire Martha Nussbaum article here. I don’t always agree with her exact political application of her ideas, but it is still a totally worthwhile read. The second quote is from a similar article by Marilynne Robinson that my friend Bethany send me when I started excitedly texting her block quotes from Nussbaum. You can read it here. And you can read more book love here.