The Role of Literature in Times of Division

By Mitch Bogen

In the intensely polarized United States of early 2017, it’s easy to find oneself reacting quickly and with outrage to any number of unfolding events. Indeed, it’s become a default position for many of us, both left and right. In her dialogue with Boston-area university students held at the Ikeda Center on April 12, 2017, Anita Patterson of Boston University argued that deep engagement with literature offers unique, even practical benefits for those looking to transcend our pattern of unthinking reaction.

Oases of Learning

While planning the evening seminar, Center staff drew inspiration from Daisaku Ikeda’s statement in his 2017 peace proposal to the United Nations that “I am not . . . pessimistic about humanity’s future. My reason is the faith I place in our world’s young people, each of whom embodies hope and the possibility of a better future.” During her opening remarks Dr. Patterson confirmed that she shares Mr. Ikeda’s faith. “I was glad,” she said, “to see President Ikeda’s emphasis in his peace proposal on the potential of young people as critical agents of change whose energetic engagement will create a better world. My life as a teacher is premised on this same belief in the need to attend to the rising generation.”

Patterson set the stage for the dialogue with students by sharing findings about the power of literature gained from her many years’ experience teaching courses in American literature at BU. One of her favorite American literary figures is Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she quoted to open: “When I converse with a profound mind, I am at first apprised of my vicinity to a new and excellent region of life. I feel a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty.” In American literature, such new and excellent regions become known to us, said Patterson, when we engage with the astounding diversity of perspectives that characterize the American literary tradition, in which, for example, “African American writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and W.E.B. Dubois find their place alongside Emerson and Thoreau.”

Patterson seminar group in circle

Engagement with literature also teaches students to avoid snap judgments and to discover how we all must come to our own understandings of great works in our own way and at our own pace. Further, discussions about works under consideration provide an opportunity, observed Patterson, to “avoid fearful conformity” and to “ensure that all voices and perspectives will be heard.” To learn to trust our own individuality and our unique responses to literature is a first step in trusting the perspective of others. “I’ve found that humanities education makes students more open-minded and respectful of differences,” said Patterson, “because in the humanities we know there is always more we can learn from others, always one more nuance or perspective on [for example] a given poem.” Coming to realize you don’t know everything is a gift, “because when you stop learning, you put an end to life itself.”

Finally, literature helps us in times of division by instilling “historical self-awareness,” meaning “that we need to learn to see social division and conflict in our society as having been shaped by what has happened and been said and done before us.” And we can see what great thinkers before of us have concluded about the challenges of cultural difference and injustice, “a necessary first step,” said Patterson,” towards finding solutions to the national and global challenges we face.” What we need, she added, are what Dubois identified as “oases” of cross-cultural learning, havens “amid a desert of caste and proscription, amid the heart-hurting slights and jars and vagaries of a deep race-dislike.” The literature classroom and the Ikeda Center both offer versions of these oases, Patterson said.

Engaging With Literature

The dialogue portion of the seminar proceeded on two tracks, with one looking at the students’ unique experiences and relationships with literature, and the other looking at how literature can deal with urgent social issues and, indeed, whether literature can in fact change the world.

The students in attendance represented several area universities and a wide variety of disciplines including landscape design, international studies, business, theology, educational leadership, and science, with only one of the students being a literature major. This meant that for many of the students, engagement with serious or historic literature has not been a central part of their lives, either personally or as students. Because of this reality, the conversation opened with each attendee reflecting on his or her own relationship to literature.

It’s okay to slow down and really take your time with a text.Some students admitted that historic, classic literature, such as is encountered in college and university courses, can be frustrating for a variety of reasons, including the density of the language and sentence syntax that can be quite different than our own. Dr. Patterson acknowledged that this is a real challenge. Her first recommendation for students is that it’s okay to slow down and really take your time with a text. Indeed, it’s good to take your time with just a single sentence! This is especially true for the writers of the American Renaissance, whom she teaches regularly; they wrote aphoristically, so one sentence can provide a window into the aesthetic or philosophy of an entire work. The kind of persistence required by difficult literature naturally stands in contrast to the transience encouraged by social media, yet technology has always impacted society in dramatic ways, said Patterson, and literature has never ceased thriving.

One barrier to student engagement with literature, said Jenna Russo, a student at the Boston University School of Theology and a participant in several Ikeda Center student seminars, stems from what she called the “hegemony of the classic,” which dictates for students what they should find meaningful. Students can always find their own meaning within those required texts, she said, but they should also be encouraged to define their own set of “classics.” Several students commented that even though they work in non-literary fields, they have been encouraged by their professors to engage with literature relevant to their research. For example, one student, Hiromi Midika Hashimoto of Tufts University, was working on water quality testing in the West Bank and was assigned to read literature relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The readings were intended to be a humanizing influence, capable of encouraging empathy and helping students to see their project as more than a technical challenge.

Does Literature Change Anything?

This West Bank experience raised the question of whether literature has the power to change us, and if so, how? Julia Hrdina, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Lesley University and also a participant in several of the seminars in the Center’s ongoing student seminar series, noted that because of her personal disposition toward the thought processes of math, her relationship with literature has been difficult. Still, when she looks back she can see how literary stories she has encountered have helped form her character. Others talked about how literature has helped them to connect their experience with the experience of others, fostering empathy and creating the foundation for expansive webs of relationship. Joining the students as a participant in the dialogue was Professor Jason Goulah, director of the Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education at DePaul University in Chicago. He shared how his love for literature led him down surprising, expansive paths of discovery. It was in a Russian literature class that he first encountered Pushkin, who, though Russian, was part African. This led to him to investigate African writers such as Wole Soyinka. Currently, his students engage with towering African-American authors such as Baldwin and Dubois, and newer figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates.

For Jenna Russo, literature can provide both a conscious and an unconscious foundation for growth throughout one’s life. She talked about how a recent class assignment asking her to reflect on a book she encountered early in life, revealed to her how much Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time had ultimately meant to her, setting into motion her current interest in seeing people from a place of love. Dr. Patterson concurred about the power of that book, saying how it has inspired her to be on guard against forces of totalitarianism.

Literature can strengthen resolve against intolerance.But can literature really change the world for the better? Early in the discussion Professor Patterson noted that literature has the ability to counter the waves of xenophobia rising across the United States and the world. Young people are “enlightened about and very open to” a wide range of differences, she said, and engagement with literature can reinforce those qualities, strengthening resolve against intolerance. And as she noted in her opening, studying historical literature expands our perspective to see that social phenomena like xenophobia have occurred before and have been dealt with successfully in ways that offer us a positive legacy to learn from and build on.

The group’s literature student, Yao Mengze of Beijing Normal University and Harvard University, observed that literature “by itself” doesn’t change the world, and that even though literature means “everything” to him, the larger culture is often either indifferent to it or baffled by it. Indeed, as the student who studied in the West Bank observed, literature doesn’t have much chance to change that conflict for the better, to contribute in their “time of division,” simply because many of the antagonists in that struggle are focused only on their rights and grievances. Another participant, Sonali Yadav of U Mass Boston, concurred that her parents, who grew up with the legacy of the India-Pakistan conflict and who have successfully pursued higher education, thought of literature as irrelevant to their circumstances.

So, no, literature is not intrinsically a change agent. For literature to work, suggested numerous participants, we must approach it with open hearts and open minds. One task of the classroom, of good education, is precisely to nurture such qualities in students. Professor Patterson said she loves the social element of her teaching in which engagement with serious literature can help students open up to each other and the world. That said, she added that it is liberating to engage with literature just for the love and joy of it.

As the seminar moved toward conclusion, seminar moderator Kevin Maher, events manager at the Ikeda Center, noted that totalitarian regimes have feared the power of literature enough to ban and burn books; in their view, much literature is subversive. Why is that? Dr. Patterson said it is because literature helps to create an inner world that others can’t touch, and this form of autonomy and invulnerability is always a threat to authority. Indeed, when Emerson spoke of self-reliance, he was actually speaking of what we might call self-trust, which is the prerequisite both for transcending the prejudices that divide us — that “fearful conformity” — and for discovering what our unique contribution to the world might be. Or, as Emerson famously phrased it in a quote Patterson shared with the group: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” To overcome our current polarization we will need a spectrum of inspired ideas, and plenty of peaceful ingenuity. The seminar was a start.


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