Many commentators have complained of the coarsening of our society and the decline of basic honesty and decency in our public and private lives. It would be hard to argue they are wrong when our corporate leaders are being carted off to jail, our political leaders are being exposed as hypocrites or worse, and our airwaves are filled with the likes of Lindsay, Paris, and Mel. As has often been observed, you can’t pass a law forbidding duplicity or regulate against thoughtlessness and hate. In the final analysis, so many of the decisions we make to treat others with honesty, decency, and respect are born of our own values and the degree to which we hold them dear.
Where do we learn our values? First and foremost, from our parents and family, which can be either a good or bad thing based one’s individual circumstances. Secondly, from our spiritual upbringing, whatever that might be. Third, we learn about behavior from observing the actions of those in the public sphere, whether those actions involve aiding flood victims or dancing half-naked on a table in a nightclub.
Fourth, and I believe this is a large and critical fourth, we learn our values from reading literature, both fiction and non-fiction, as part of a rigorous liberal arts education. Reading introduces us to lives different from our own, spiritual traditions that spring from histories we cannot imagine, and allows us to understand how our behavior is determined by the choices we make each and every day of our lives. Every time we read something, we are compelled to stack up our values against those of others, and in doing so we engage in a process of self-reflection and self-growth that strengthens both our minds and values.
This is especially important while one is growing up. You can’t read Romeo and Juliet without pondering the differences between love and obsession. It would be difficult to make one’s way through A Lesson Before Dying without pondering the endless possibilities for personal redemption. A young person can learn about fighting destructive and unjust laws in a constructive and just manner by reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. The examples are as vast and varied as the universe of literature, and we shortchange our students any time we craft a Language Arts curriculum that does not put challenging literature at its center.
I have seen this repeatedly in high school classrooms. I will never forget the young man in my Applied English who wrote, after reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, that he was more convinced than ever of his decision to join the Marines because he wanted to protect people who might be subjected to the same heartless tyranny the Nazis practiced on the Jews. I remember the minister’s daughter in my class loudly defending the right of Bert Cates in the play Inherit The Wind to teach evolution to his students. I remember the young man who started his senior research paper strongly pro-capital punishment and, after reading through far more source material than the assignment required, wrote thoughtfully and persuasively for both sides of the issue.
Reading a book will not, of course, guarantee a young person’s heart is true and values clear. However, reading continuously and deeply of what our vast body of American, European, and World Literature has to offer will make it more likely that our students have done at least a little thinking about themselves and the world they inhabit, which I believe is the minimum that we expect our schools to teach our students to do.