The Point of Literature?

At the end of the class before our final, I told my freshman English literature students I didn't know the answer to their exam question; in fact, I wouldn't know the answer until they told me. This is a frustrating response for students looking for the safe answer--which of my own words I most want them to recite to me--and asking the infernal, "What's gonna be on the exam?" question on their way out the door.

Their writing has to be about them--how they analyze what they read, how they place it in the overall scheme of their learning and living, what they think is worthwhile.

I asked my students to take a holistic view of our syllabus--which included Christina Rossetti, Allen Ginsburg, Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth, Eugene O'Neill, Sophocles, Rudolfo Anaya, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, Franz Kafka, and Dylan Thomas--to find a theme these works share. One student began her essay by saying the task was onerous. Cool. Another student said it's about dealing with the negative influences of the world. (Of course; literature is never about happy things.) Also cool.

They, like almost half their classmates, said the works show "how you respond to the challenges you face in life determines the kind of person you become." Through the ages, literature has explored the challenges that beset the individual, his or her responses, the effects of those responses on others, and the ensuing quality of life for the main character. In other words, we're not alone; we're accountable to and for each other. Thus, the loss of innocence story--the bildungsroman--is about accepting responsibility for the causes and effects of our own behavior.

The strongest essay in the class was written by a young man who was very much his own person; his ideas were always genuinely his own. Here are some of his thoughts that framed his discussion of the literature in his exam essay. I offer them as a series of sensitive, intelligent statements. They stand alone as the product of a beautiful, sensitive young mind.

These works share the common theme of the search and recognition of one's true self....At each stage of life--childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age--the human mind is faced with different kinds of predicaments that will come to define our character's growth....Although it is impossible for children to fully comprehend things like the temptation of sin and the loss of innocence, they are thrust into it completely....The way a person adjusts and adapts to reality will dictate how well he transitions into the next stage of human development....In adolescence, one understands how harsh the world can be. It is at this time a person must find a place of solace and peace or be forever tormented by unfair and cruel reality.

Why do we need arts in education? We must learn to comprehend those things into which we are thrust completely. What he said. Of course.