Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Teaching, Literature, and Ideas

From Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find:"

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,”

I usually start discussion of this story with this passage, and allow the conversation to branch away from the story itself into a broader discussion of ideas. What is the Misfit saying? That he sees religion as an all or nothing proposition, and that if there is no God, there is no basis for morality. This can lead to a discussion of Pascal's wager, Dostoevsky's "Everything is permitted," and a whole host of philosophical and theological subjects. I can ask if students consider religious belief an all or nothing proposition, or what it means to be somewhere in between. At one point I ask students, what prevents you from killing other people? Or more specifically, if there is no afterlife, what prevents you from killing other people? I'm interested to hear students' arguments about where morality might be grounded, about what grounds human actions.

I typically focus class discussion on the text (this semester, I'm finding students really respond to "character," expressing like or dislike for these imaginary characters, and offering insightful comments on fictional characters' minds and actions). But for a brief period, discussion is not focused on the text, but on the thoughts this text can inspire. I hope students are reflecting on what grounds their lives. That certainly doesn't mean I'm preaching (for what it's worth, after this discussion I doubt students could confidently know whether I'm an adamant believer or a staunch atheist), and I try to leave the discussion open. But I don't think it is wrong during a literature course to ask questions that probe students' assumptions and values, to ask them to share their ideas and consider their own lives.

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