There is a poem by Vachel Lindsay, called the Leaden-Eyed, which goes as follows:
Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are oxlike, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.
Many interpretations of this poem are possible, but one stands out for me: that if the young are not shown the possibility and even the probability of their lives’ fulfillment, they are, as another famous American, Henry David Thoreau, put it, doomed to live lives of quiet desperation.
What is the source of the inspiration the young so deeply need? Of course, it is in education. But what about education is it that inspires? Most of all, it is literature.
People learn through narrative. Notwithstanding the assault on literature launched by the proponents of Common Core, the study of great literary works, of narrative fiction and nonfiction, drama and poetry, are not just a part of, but central to, the education essential to the development of children’s minds.
The most efficient and effective vehicle for teaching the lessons of life, of the spirit and of philosophic reality, are variously described as the parable, the anecdote, the fable, the myth and the legend. Imbued with the reality that underlies the story—often a morality tale—the fable, for example, contains elements of the real world to drive the core lesson home, while couching that moral in the cloak of fiction.
In this way, the novel is the most sophisticated extrapolation of the fairy tale—or rather, it can be. Of course, the verismo “slice of life” tale, replete with negative elements that do not resolve by story’s end, that do not hold out hope of change against the vagaries of bad elements, under the guise of “realism,” are equally effective examples of what not to do, how not to live and what not to wish for. The lessons in them are negative.
In his short, telling book, Toward a Moral Fiction, the writer and well-known literary methodologist, John Gardner, insisted that good literature must always have as its core a moral perspective in which good and evil are juxtaposed against each other so that they are clearly distinguished, because the purpose of fiction is to help clarify for readers what is good in life and what is bad, what makes life worth living and what to avoid like the plague. When this element is not present, as in a technical manual, or when it is perverted so that the bad replaces the good, for example, in literature that celebrates drug addiction, perverse sex and repulsive behavior, the example that is learned is at best uninspiring or at worse inspires the wrong values. It does not present an example to live by.
Does this mean a piece of literature cannot be tragic, or that it cannot contain negative elements that describe reality?
Of course not. In good literature right and wrong are clearly identified. Right is good and wrong is bad. No rational person would think that what Iago does is good. It may question what motivates Othello, and draw parallels between his act and Iago’s intentions. But that is the purpose of great literature, that very question which inspires one to find truth. Inspiration, in fact, is the great gift of great literature.
Most often, in good literature, right triumphs over wrong, good beats bad and what ought to be is shown in clear distinction against what ought not to be. Any curriculum that poses wrong over right or that blurs the difference, under the guise of “realism,” is defective and ought not to be taught to children in schools.
There is no other way to put it. If we deny our children the wonders of poetry, short stories and novels that extol the great virtues and heroic exploits of figures of history and fiction, where will that inspiration come from? Will it, can it, come from reading technical manuals? Is there anything to learn from studying the procedures for operating a wireless router that has anything to do with building character, as compared to reading “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?
Reading technical manuals, as prescribed by Common Core, gives our children no nourishment of the spirit; while books like “Dreaming in Cuban” and “Persepolis” teach no clear lesson that places good behavior above bad. When we replace Shakespeare, Dickens and Poe with such reading, we do not feed our children good literature, but defective pap that may poison their minds.