Uncertainty is a feature, not a bug, of great literature


Many representations of groups of parents and educational leaders oppose these forces with total enmity, but on one point there is consensus: what is taught must lend itself to certainty, to a measure that is indisputable. Few of either group agree that stories worth passing down from generation to generation have at heart a nuanced, usually adversarial relationship with unequivocal statements about meaning.

I have commented in these pages on the issue of critical thinking as an antidote to indoctrination; quite a few people then accused me of perversity for having asked my students to participate in debates on the key messages of Toni Morrison Beloved and George Orwell 1984. There is, as one correspondent has noted, no proper means of introducing works of such dubious value; they are aberrations of American ideals, and if taught, they should be presented as aberrations. This is precisely the question that I ask the students to decide.

Parents and education officials dislike the instability that accompanies student decision-making. When students are asked to think critically, the imposition of orthodox ideas by someone else is challenged in the most dangerous way,

For instance, 1984 is much more comfortable if one assumes that its protagonist, who believes until late in the novel that a force of history or nature will justify his resistance to totalitarian oppression, could only have existed 80 years ago, only in the hands of the Nazis or the Stalinists. If the book is treated as having contemporary relevance, it becomes quite dangerous. Winston Smith’s resistance, his ego, is shattered; from the fragments of identity, a party-loving, history-denying, self-enslaving caricature emerges – a caricature entirely forged by Winston’s oppressors.

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Whether 1984 is not about what humans are capable of doing to each other, but simply what some aberrant humans did once upon a time (and never in America), so readers have a sense of security: those who are at power now could not be selfish, ever-changing narratives about the nature of the past (we have too much certainty for this nonsense); we would have the freedom of doubt that many parents and vigilant educators wish for students.

And by accepting such freedom, we would banish the need to read anything that deals with fundamental uncertainties. So 1984 should leave, or we should tell this lie about it: While we may not know why Orwell left Winston with such a dark fate, we do know that it has nothing to do with us.

And other works should be scrapped. If Toni Morrison represents anything foreign to American ideals (I think the representation of a sadistic slave owner whose former “ownership” was so terrified of him that she would kill her children and herself rather than to return to him is at odds with any human ideal), so perhaps the focus should be on works that few, if any, find aberrant.

Shakespeare could stay, of course. And yet he is the mind behind the “unmotivated malignity” of an Iago, which tormented and ruined everyone around him – for less reason than the Party in 1984; for no particular reason. Shakespeare gave us “comedies” about sexual harassment (measure for measure) in which a Puritan hypocrite receives, as a “punishment” for using his power to entrap and abuse a chaste woman, the fate of having to marry another woman – one who actually wants to be with him.

The truth is that literary value adheres to works not because they resolve all doubt, but because they pose disturbing and unanswerable questions. To argue otherwise is to insist that one’s own intellectual limits must be the absolute constraints imposed on anyone who reads a thought-provoking book.

Such impositions are nonetheless commonplace: our tests, and the flippant disregard for the unknown, the new, the different, carried by so many in debates about how to teach literature, contain a predicted false resolution – and denied – by the oldest. and the best of all our literature.

To empty literature of its most human characteristic deprives readers of a dangerous and necessary knowledge: uncertainty is not just a hurdle to jump, but a fundamental part of human experience – something we live and that we cannot and must not always overcome. Perhaps the study of literature is at best an acknowledgment that we can only achieve consensus through coercion, deliberately inflicting harm on those whose opinions differ from our own.

One day soon, children will no longer know or care to identify misinformation. When books are just collections of truths that we use to erase that which causes the deepest unease and uncertainty, our children will not know that they are missing something precious.

Young people will in turn accept the book bans. (Why the hell wouldn’t they?) Eventually, they’ll accept the Holocausts, as long as they’re untargeted and carefully separated from the agonizing moral ambiguities that seem to have made our best stories too dangerous to pass on.

David Newman is a high school English teacher in Odessa. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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