How Challenging Literature Shows Deep Respect for Learners

How Challenging Literature Shows Deep Respect for Learners

I was particularly struck this week by a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “The Conversation” blog. In “Unsentimental Education,” Robert Cowan, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, reflects on why he teaches Flaubert and Kant to a group of students who have far more on their plates than school in a world that increasingly denigrates the humanities.

Cowan writes,“In my 15 years of college teaching – half of it at community colleges – my ideas about expanding the minds of my students have been tempered by the realities of my classroom.”

Who are these students?

 “Many of them are single mothers who work full -time, or formerly incarcerated trying not to screw up their second chance, or traumatized vets, ex-Hasidim, new immigrants. Almost half of them (according to college-wide estimates) have household incomes under $20,000. Many native speakers of English write even worse than the ESL students.”

So isn’t Flaubert viewed through the perspective of Kant a tad ambitious for these learners? Especially when they struggle to find the time and energy to do the reading? Cowan’s colleagues recommend that he assign his students ‘texts they can manage:’ anthologies of shorter snippets that raise interesting issues and take less thought to read and digest.

“I do teach a lot of those texts. The topics and voices are important. But I also believe, perhaps archaically, that students should read whole books, not just decontextualized snippets […] Reading three books, even long ones, in a freshman writing class, seems reasonable to me – and I know the students can do it […] I can try to establish an atmosphere of inquiry and responsibility in my classroom that will serve students whether this is the end of their schooling or not.”

Cowan holds his ground – and the rewards are there:

 “They were fired up about Flaubert’s ‘moral history of the men of [his] age,’ about people who are spoiled, egotistical and two-faced. ‘That Frédéric character was just playin’ everybody.’ ‘Man, my rich aunt is like that, and we don’t trust her at all.’ At the end of class, when asked whether the characters in Sentimental Education act in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative to make their acts conform to universal laws, there were no looks of bewilderment. The class erupted into a resounding ‘No!’”

In our Books@Work programs, our participants are not exactly like Cowan’s students. We have participants from every background imaginable, in many jobs across organizations. Our most powerful programs are cross-hierarchical and cross-functional – with members of management and employees on the shop-floor sharing their thoughts on challenging literature. But like Cowan’s students, they have so much on their minds over and above the luxury of learning. They have jobs and families, childcare and parent-care responsibilities. And like Cowan’s students, they struggle to finish the reading and they sometimes even struggle to get to the sessions.

But too often, people judge others living this crazy life. We have supervisors who tell us that their employees won’t read unless they are “paid extra.” We have others who tell us that the literature we encourage is too hard – that the only way people will take the time to learn is if we make it easier, shorter, faster. Our experience, like Professor Cowan’s experience, is that this is not the answer.

When we give participants a choice of what to read, they often choose the classics – Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Stoker’s Dracula, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning – to give a few specific examples. We are just beginning to collect the data as to why this is so, but early feedback suggests that there is a deep hunger to connect to this literature most of us have heard about but few have read.

Where we have listened to supervisors tell us to keep the readings easier, more “accessible” (not unlike Cowan’s references to his colleague’s suggestions that he assign “texts they can manage”), our participants have told us otherwise. No more. Our participants expect more from themselves and we respect that. We push back hard when we are told to keep it “easy!”

In short, there is a fundamental issue of respect at play here. We have a societal narrative that says that busy, working people have no interest in high quality literature, or in challenging themselves to explore complex texts. This narrative permeates the current national dialogue on education as a means to get a job rather than learning to become a better learner (and a better worker). It fuels the humanities “crisis” about which we read so much. Underlying these messages is the insidious belief that the liberal arts – literature, the arts, history and culture, the natural and the social sciences – belong not to the working classes but somehow to the leisure class and the leisure class alone, as if critical thinking, communication, intellectual debate and skills of analysis, resilience and reinvention should be rationed or parceled out to a narrow few. If we respect our learners to live up to the task they have chosen to embark upon (and, like Cowan, hold them to actually doing the work), we will all be surprised at what we share and can learn not only from the texts but from each other.

Nearly all our professors have extolled the experience of Books@Work not only as a chance to teach a book they love without the pressure of grades and judgment, but because they learn so much more through the eyes of our experienced participants. As one professor shared recently at the end of her Books@Work sessions, “I was left thinking more deeply about my life and my daily choices.” And while we have not yet read Flaubert or Kant, we have read Zola, Shakespeare, Melville, Wharton, Hemingway, Shelley, Austen… the list is long.

Is reading a challenging text for everyone? Absolutely. And it is deeply respectful of our human ability to learn and share – regardless of what else occupies our days and lives. We’d love to hear what you think!

Albrecht Durer, Two Hands Holding a Pair of Books, 1506, via Biblioklept

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.