I became an English major for a couple of reasons. One, because I love to read, and two, because I’ve “gotten” a lot out of what I’ve read (and wanted to share this awesome avenue of discovery with others – yeah, I’m English Ed.). For the most part, I have enjoyed my college English courses – I’ve learned a lot about different time periods, authors, genres, movements, and schools of thought, literary and otherwise. I’ve learned how to analyze works and to unearth a lot of essential questions about humanity that they pose. My studies have been, as a whole, gratifying. But I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with Edmundson’s argument on page 60:
But asking critical questions should not devolve into a mere parlor game. That is, we should not teach our students that the aim of every reading is to bring up the questions that might debunk the wisdom at hand, and then leave it at that. We must ask the question of belief. Is this poem true? Can you use this poem? Or are you living in a way that’s better than the poem suggests you might live? To these queries, we should expect only heartfelt answers.
By refusing to ask such questions once we have coaxed the work’s vision forward, we are leaving our students where we found them.
In my experiences, though these great “essential questions” are always POSED in lecture or discussion, I don’t feel like they’re ever actually DISCUSSED. They're very rarely applied directly to our real, modern-day lives, and even more rarely do we actually interact with them in a personal way. WHY are we reading a particular work? How does it specifically pertain to us? How can it help us? What is it saying to the world today?
What about you? Do you find that your classrooms center on the “culture of cool” (Edmundson's term for a general depersonalization of the classroom [and the modern-day culture at large] in place of students’ possibly-embarrassing genuine investment and self-discovery)? If so, has this been beneficial to you as a student of English? As an individual in your everyday life? Have you ever actually been changed by a work of literature? Is this growth of the reader even important or necessary? Is literature the appropriate venue for this kind of growth/self-discovery?
Although I agree that Edmundson’s rhetoric is a bit extreme at times (especially regarding the ineffectiveness of the modern-day liberal arts college), his focus on literature as a tool for the reader to discover his/her Final Narrative matches my views well. As a reader, I have always attempted to extract core truth(s) from literary works, test whether these statements are valid against the backdrop of my life, and then evaluate whether it’s necessary for me to alter my opinions or lifestyle based on this new knowledge. I do also believe that literature can and does serve other important purposes – as a tool to record history, or as an aesthetic pleasure, for example – and that the dissection of works via the New Criticism method can be illuminatingly worthwhile. However, in my opinion, Edmundson’s assertions capture what I have always found to be literature’s highest calling: it asserts the truth that someone else has discovered, and presents it to me to ponder and perhaps adopt in a life-changing sort of way.