I long to teach a course called “Bullshit Interpretations,” where the only viable interpretations are the ones where my students make connections between the texts and their own lives. After all, when students walk into my class it takes me nearly the entire semester to untangle the emotional and personal baggage each student brings with him or her. Increasingly, I’m finding that students are unable to divorce their own lives from the texts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when first approaching a reading of the text, but it does severely limit the legitimacy of the student’s interpretation of the text, not to mention the richness of the text. What I’ve found most disturbing is that many of my students (and one is too many, really) when they open the text in class are actually playing the role of Narcissus and the book is the pool reflecting the student’s image. This is what they want above all: to see themselves in everything they read, write, watch, or listen to in order to achieve a perpetual validation. I recently heard a top administrator refer to students as customers, not once, but several times through the course of a presentation. Well, if the student is the customer, then our task is not to antagonize the customer but validate him or her. It is precisely here that higher education is failing its students, by enabling this sense of self-validation.
It is important for students to make a personal connection with texts, and it may be an entirely appropriate and healthy practice to see one’s self in the texts that he or she reads. For those students who are especially reluctant to read, this may indeed be a great place to start. But as teachers our job is to provide students the encouragement and the room to maneuver out of this wholly personal space and enter into the space that is the text. Making a connection with the texts does not necessarily mean that the student should identify with all of the texts he or she reads. In fact, one of the most profound experiences one can have with reading (especially a novel) is when the reader can forget himself or herself and step into the life of the character. Reading novels can give us a sense of empathy that is unlike any other experience. In his celebrated essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson makes the following declaration: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” If the student is preoccupied with finding herself in a book, then how will she find inspiration? How will that book change her outlook on life? If the student is obsessed with finding validation, affirmation, then the student cannot come to learning because there is no risk involved. In order for one to learn one must put one’s beliefs at risk.
I’m alarmed by the number of students who express their lack of interest in reading novels simply because novels are fiction, make believe. I cannot help but feel a profound sense of sadness when they willfully give up the experience of dwelling within the world of novels. Recently, one student informed me that reading the “great books” is only good for winning at trivia in bars. Part of me thinks that that particular student is already lost before he’s begun. Another part recoils at the ignorance of such a statement, but recognizes the teachable moment. People who do not read novels are less interesting, less smart, and by and large much less open to difference. Of course, parts of my job as a teacher is to show them that novels, however outlandish and creative they may be, are not entirely “make believe,” nothing that comes from the human imagination ever is. In her essay “O.M.F. Revisited” Siri Hustvedt eloquently writes, “The act of reading still surprises me, especially reading novels. The fact that I can look down at little symbols on a page and translate them into images and voices continues to astonish me. I don’t remember the words on the page. I remember what I saw and heard the way I remember the real world.” The magic that occurs when reading, the magic that is reading profoundly and deeply, the power of literature is, as John Gardner claimed, life affirming.
Perhaps we get the students we deserve. I certainly do not fault my students for not believing in the power of the novel. After all, students, like teachers, like administrators, are all products of the times. We are consumers above all, and what we consume defines us in unprecedented ways. But what we know, and how we know what we know, should be at the center of any educational practice. Students come to us in the dark, and it’s our task to usher them into the light.