Before we move too far beyond the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I thought I’d post one more thought about the subject. After I’d had my moment when babies became real (see my last post), I had an overlapping experience that greatly shaped my understanding of literature.
While I teach English now, that was not my major in college, so when I decided to pursue graduate work in literature, I had to take some courses to demonstrate my analytical skills. In one class, our professor taught Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant short story, “Hills like White Elephant,” which is about a young couple contemplating the prospect of an abortion.
The story is intense. The man tries desperately to convince her that it’s no big deal. “It’s not really anything,” he says. “It’s just to let the air in.” He asserts, “We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.”
Our professor used that “let the air in” line to talk about symbolism. “It’s not just letting ‘air’ into the woman’s uterus, it’s letting ‘air’ into their lives. The procedure will let their relationship continue to breathe. It’s symbolic air.”
Since I had developed my thoughts on abortion fairly recently, I read the story as a damning indictment of the man’s calloused failure to protect his romantic interest and their child. I thought it was a great illustration of the seriousness of the issue. To my utter disappointment, the professor never said a word about the ethics of the fictional discussion. The couple could have been buying a can of beans for all our in-class analysis indicated. There was no passion (in either direction of the issue) and no wrestling with the realities of the rhetoric. We learned about the facts and techniques of the story but we didn’t learn anything from it.
Since I knew that I wanted to teach English, I decided then and there that I would never teach students about literature without making sure that they learned from it. Sure, I would teach the technical characteristics and historical contexts, are incredibly powerful tools for analysis, but I thought there should be so much more: a look at how literature can inform our own thoughts in terms of ethics. I don’t mean that I was going to be an ideologue who used literature to make my point at the expense of serious discussion, but I wanted for my students to know that they could argue over the most important issues of the day based on their readings of important works of literature. I wanted them to know that literature is a living, breathing commentary on our lives and our world.
Ethical readings of literature ruled the pedagogical roost until the twentieth century. I personally think that one of the reasons for the decline of English as an undergraduate major is because students aren’t dull enough to sit through hours of professors telling them that words don’t mean anything. Such an approach has caused the study of literature to rise up like yet another intellectual white elephant.