Our Commencement speaker two weeks ago was the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner and one of my favorite columnists. He delivered a message to our graduates with which I fervently agree: THINK!
Robinson told us that he is tired of seeing politics conducted with bumper sticker simplicity. The real problems that America is facing, he said, don’t lend themselves to sloganeering. The two he mentioned were immigration and energy policy. He said that neither the right nor the left has all the answers on these matters.
Although universities are sometimes portrayed, by those on the right, as hothouses for leftist politics, I would flunk my students if they gave me the kind of simplistic thinking that I see so often in national politics. It wouldn’t matter whether I agreed with their general positions. Like most college teachers, I am allergic to ideas that aren’t thought through carefully.
It also struck me that, in literary interpretation, students learn the skills that Robinson was calling for. They must interpret symbolic language, decipher irony (the difference between apparent and actual meaning), factor in the perspectives of unreliable narrators, make sense of conflicting sympathies, and sort through nuance. What we ask them to do is hard. That’s why we have them write and revise and re-revise in class after class. That’s why, in seminar discussions, we challenge them to take positions and defend them. I regularly feel affirmed when I contrast my seniors with my freshmen and see how much better thinkers, readers, and writers they have become.
Here are some of the questions I put to them in my British Literature survey class. Can they differentiate between what the Wife of Bath says she wants, what she thinks she wants, and what she really wants? Given that they see three different judgments of Sir Gawain taking the green girdle, who should they believe? (Gawain lacerates himself but the Green Knight and Camelot are more forgiving.) What are they to make of the fact that Satan seems to be the most glamorous character in Paradise Lost? Are they to believe, as William Blake did, that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it? Or is Milton trying to suck them in so that they will redefine their definition of heroism? Argue for what you believe, I tell them, using logic and textual evidence to back up your claim.
The reason I objected to Ayn Rand’s novels in Monday’s post is because I don’t think she challenges readers. Her ideas are good debate fodder for a political science class, and my colleagues in that discipline don’t let their students get away with slipshod thinking any more than I do. But in my discipline, the greater the work, the deeper a student is forced to go.
Shakespeare, of course, is the gold standard. In A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality, A. D. Nuttall talks about how he finds himself always looking up at Shakespeare, never down at him. He can never pigeonhole him, put him in a box, figure him out. Every theory we arrive at about Shakespeare is tentative and just touches on a portion of this work or that. It’s as though the author is as big as life. Or to apply his own famous formulation (expressed by Hamlet), he holds the mirror up to nature.
In forcing them to interpret deeply and coherently, I am preparing my students to be the kind of thinkers that Robinson wants. I know that Shakespeare will not come up as a regular topic in their future jobs (unless they become English teachers). But the thinking skills that they must use as they grapple with the bard of Avon will serve them well in this complex world. The more we have of such thinkers, the better chance our society has of surviving.