At a 2016 Young Rhetoricians’ Conference panel last week, I presented a paper on “The Literate Painting as an Antidote to Psychological Man and `the Gravity of Our Own Time.’” I argued that paintings that allude to Western cultural treasures (literature, philosophy, architecture, sculpture) can help us resist the nihilism infecting art, culture, politics and education. My co-panelist, a California State University professor, followed explaining her approach to teaching freshman composition. Her presentation was titled “Understanding Global Community and Identity through 21st Century Middle Eastern and South West Asian Literature.” Her presentation description reads, “Literature offers a wonderful vehicle to teach students critical global issues such as universal human rights, religious pluralism, gender equity, women’s education, arranged marriages, and cultural diversity, creating an environment that promotes global citizenship in a composition classroom.” She has her students read contemporary fiction such as Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner, and Mahbod Seraji’s Roofs of Tehran.
Afterward, there was time for discussion, and one veteran professor asked whether teachers really ought to be using fictional works when teaching freshman composition. Good question, and a perennial argument between professors who think freshman comp is a service course preparing students to write successful essays in other courses, and professors who feel that they can’t ignore what might be their only opportunity to expose students to literature. But now, a third voice has been added to the debate: professors who believe that the purpose of freshman comp is to use fiction to embed in students a liberal suite of “critical global issues.”
I, too, once used fiction in teaching Comp. but, over time, experience taught me that it was a mistake. I explained to the panel audience that I now opposed introducing fiction into courses “whose primary purpose is discovering and presenting factual truth about the real world.” For example, I have publicly disagreed with serious Holocaust scholars, as well as Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern, who approve of using fictional or fictionalized works when teaching the Holocaust because of fiction’s emotional impact. I argued that “using fiction in this way is red meat for Holocaust deniers who can dismiss such class materials because they are invented, false, products of the imagination, no matter how compelling. Even Oprah insisted on a line between fiction and reality.” In Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson looks nothing like the real Oskar Schindler. Worse, Steven Spielberg’s film is a glorious example of black and white cinematography. What happens, I asked, “when you depict monstrous evil in a way that produces aesthetic pleasure?”
My argument was lost on the young rhetoricians. One audience member echoed my fellow panelist, citing the desirable emotional persuasion of fiction and repeating the new freshman comp. necessity of making “global citizens.” Then she went even further, calmly insisting that “I have to tell the students what to think” about the fiction “so that they can then write a research paper about the book’s `message.’”
But wait—isn’t one quality of great literary works their complex, suggestive, and intractable ambiguity? What, for example, is Moby Dick “about?” To the progressive left, it’s about racism, sexism, capitalism, and the lack of LGBT characters. It’s no wonder the liberal arts are withering when teachers use fiction to teach the research paper and students learn that all they can expect to find in literature is stale ideological “messages.” I recall hearing the Irish critic Denis Donoghue nail it when he said that literature professors today “use literature to talk about what interests them apart from literature.”