Monday, December 16, 2013

Students Learn to Connect Through Literature

The following essay by Paul Grandi is from LI 419 - Theoretical Issues in Literary Studies, which is taught by Dr. Creighton Lindsay.  This course is required of those college seminarians who double major in philosophy and literature. Paul is studying for the Diocese of Tucson and also serves as in the Mount Angel Seminary Writing Center.

Literature as Connection
by Paul Grandi

Years ago, when I was still in high school, I turned in a first draft of an essay to my Advanced Placement Language and Composition teacher, confident that it was a well-written paper and that I had only a few minor tweaks to make before turning in the final draft.  Great was my surprise when I checked my grade a few days later to find out that I had received a "C."  According to my teacher, I had forgotten one crucial aspect - a defining aspect, some might say - the "universal connection."  I had failed to answer the question "so what?" in my essay.  I had not connected the essay to any potential readers.

Paul Grandi

Learning about the "universal connection" proved to be one of the most important lessons about writing that I have ever been taught.  Roberts, in his discussion about the definition of literature, sees this aspect as one of its defining characteristics.  Literature is more than just words on a page or even the world created by them - it is the connection it holds with humanity.  According to Samuel Johnson, it is therefore the task of the author to foster that connection in his own work so that its implications go far beyond itself.  When viewed side by side, Roberts' and Johnson's respective discussions about the meaning of literature work together to establish that literature, by its very nature, has influence on the world outside itself, acting as both a lens and a mirror for humanity.

Johnson's quote about "the task of the author" shows his belief that an author is more than a storyteller. He writes, "The task of an author is . . . to teach what is not known . . . to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them" (Johnson).  According to Johnson, an author is, in a sense, a teacher - his task is to teach, to impart knowledge, to give wisdom "by his manner of adorning them."  Johnson believes that the author has a unique power to pass on truths through his medium.  More than that, though, Johnson sees the author as one who must "vary the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace . . . [and] spread such flowers over the regions through which the intellect has already made its progress, as may tempt it to return, and take a second view of things hastily passed over."  For Johnson, an author is also a guide through the realms of human knowledge, a caretaker of the vast grounds of the human intellect and soul, whose task is not merely to write about truths but to connect them with the larger body of the human race.  In short, an author's task is to dress his work in relevance to humanity.  He must make his work matter to those who are going to read it.  When an author succeeds in this, then literature can fulfill its potential, which Roberts elaborates on.

As Johnson writes about the task of the author, so Roberts writes about the task of literature, emphasizing its power to affect the lives of the readers and the way they view the world. Roberts begins his definition of literature by saying "Literature helps us grow, both personally and intellectually" (Roberts). Right from the beginning, he establishes that literature is active.  He goes on, using a variety of verbs: "[Literature] provides . . . it links us . . . it enables us . . . it gives us . . . [it] shapes us . . . it encourages us . . ." etc.  The verbs are all personal - literature is reader-centric.  It affects change; it does things to "us," the readers.  "Literature," Roberts says, "shapes goals and values by clarifying our own identities, both positively, through acceptance of the admirable in human beings, and negatively, through rejection of the sinister.  It helps us shape our judgments through the comparison of the good and the bad."  Roberts believes in the power of literature to form us.  In his view, we - the readers - discover ourselves in literature the same way we discover ourselves by looking in a mirror.  Through reading about the human person in countless situations and settings, we learn about the human person.  We learn about ourselves.

However, literature does more than that, according to Roberts - not only does it help us learn how to view ourselves but also the world around us.  He writes, "[Literature] provides the comparative basis from which we can see worthiness in the aims of all people, and it therefore helps us see beauty in the world around us . . . it enables us to develop perspective on events occurring locally and globally, and thereby gives us understanding and control."  Literature gives us a lens which which to see the world - it helps us sculpt our opinions about all the things that come into our attention every day.  It makes us think about ourselves and the world, thereby helping us "grow, both personally and intellectually."  Literature, according to Roberts, helps define us - "it makes us human."

Looking at Johnson and Roberts, one might see literature as a sort of high school classroom.  The students enter on the first day, their minds notebooks to be written in.  Perhaps their is something written there already - preconceived opinions, knowledge that has already been obtained, etc.  No matter - the students still open their notebooks and look expectantly up at you, the teacher, as the class begins, preparing to write down whatever you might tell them.  You have a clear task ahead of you.  Like any good teacher, you know your subject because you have spent much time studying it, and you know exactly where you want to take your students.  You introduce them to the subject, starting with the basics and then work your way up to the details, challenging your class to think critically along the way.  At the end of the year, you hope your students have learned something.  Even if they forget the date of the constitutional convention, how to factor polynomials, or what organelles are inside an animal cell, you hope that you have impacted their lives because it is really the road of life that you have been leading them down all along.  In the midst of your curriculum you have sought to make your knowledge relevant, to impart life lessons to your students.  Essentially, you seek the universal connection.

As an author you take the human person as your subject and the imagination as your playground.  Through your life-long study of humanity, you grow into Johnson's vision: you see hidden paths, the ones forgotten.  You discover paths never before examined.  You find ones that would be useful to explore once more.  Through your studies, you become a teacher; in your journeying, you become a guide - a guide who can, and therefore must, accomplish the monumental task that Roberts sets before you: Change the world!  Challenge us! Show us the depths of our evil and the heights of our greatness!  Make us look in the mirror!  Make us think!  Make us dream!  Above all, be relevant, for if in reading we are changed then in writing you must change us.

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