Good Literature Makes the Reader “Move With” the Characters

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Sometimes when I’m reading a good book I pause for a moment to think over a very insightful passage or section I’ve just completed. Something I’m sure all serious readers do. For me, the writer has connected a number of ideas and has set my mind to work reflecting on its larger significance. This, for me, is what true education is about. From time to time, I write my reflections in a journal or jot a note on a piece of paper and insert it in the back of the book. Recently, while going through some books in my bookroom, I found a piece of paper, a reflection, folded in the back of a biography I’d read years ago with the following written on it:

It is human personality that most interest us. All through the great writings of classical authors we are most moved by greatly drawn characters. The results of character bumping up against circumstance and how individuals respond, this is what makes literature so powerful and meaningful. Think of Plutarch, Dickens, and Twain, these authors bring characters to life on the page. They live in our mind, if only briefly, sharing, in some sense giving us the experience of, their emotions, their hopes, and their tragedies. We move with them. We learn through a process of association and empathy. Feeling—empathically—what has happened to others allows us to connect with people across time and space. We share in their humanity. We learn. It is through this process that we can hold hands with the past.

The Spirits of Christmas

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I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone! —Ebenezer Scrooge

Hang on to Your Hope

In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E.B. White, the famed New Yorker writer and author of Charlotte’s Web, expressing his hopelessness about the state of humanity. Considering the state of political affairs today, especially in the U.S., we have good reason to revisit White’s encouraging and hopeful letter of reply:

North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

The Retreat of Western Liberalism

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m trying to better understand the various problems and agitations facing America and Western societies in general at this time. Of course there are always struggles to overcome, but I think it’s fair to say we face some unique challenges at this time in our history. The better we can get our heart and mind around them the better chance we have of overcoming them.

With that in mind, I recently completed Edward Luce’s new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. A very interesting read. It’s not a book meant to make you feel good. Titles like that shouldn’t. But it will cause you to do something we all need to do in moments (as a nation and as individual) like these and that’s pause to reflect on what truly matters. For those who don’t know, the word Liberalism in this context (the book’s title) is referring to a set of fundamental principles that constitute the basis of all Western democratic societies. We’re talking about things like a free press, religious freedom, equality, free speech, etc, etc. Western governments are in-fact liberal democracies.

Edward Luce thinks the Western liberal democratic model of governance, while not dead, is in serious trouble:

Western liberal democracy is not yet dead, but it is far closer than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.

Donald Trump, Luce argues, is a symptom not the cause of the disease in America. So naturally the question becomes: What brought on this disease? Well what holds liberal democracies together, Luce says, isn’t culture but economic growth. And when that economic growth stalls, leading to massive inequality and a loss of social mobility (U.S has the largest gap of both in the West), we begin to see this threat to the political order and ultimately the survival of liberal democracy.

By any numerical measure, humanity is becoming rapidly less poor. But between half and two-thirds of the people in the West have been treading water — at best — for a generation. Tens of millions of Westerners will struggle to keep their heads above the surface over the coming decades. The spread of automation, including artificial intelligence and remote intelligence, which some call the fourth industrial revolution, is still in its early states. So too is what the American journalist Fareed Zakaria has labelled the rise of the rest. The emergence of China is the most dramatic event in economic history. We are living in an age of convergence no less dramatic than the age of divergence brought about by European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. The downward pressure on the incomes of the West’s middle classes in the coming years will be relentless.

So the lack of economic growth and social mobility has fueled this threat and the future doesn’t look good unless we return to policies that help build a prosperous middle class while avoiding policies that build a strong oligarchy—which is what we’re currently doing. That’s right, as one writer put, “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” Being able to aspire upwards, the dream of upward social and economic mobility, is at the heart of the American (Western) dream. When economic growth sags, when wage growth stagnates (as it has for decades now in America), when large segments of the population are either unemployed or underemployed, or working multiple jobs just to stay above water, then personal investment in the current political system starts to weaken and you have a rich soil for rebellion and the rise of demagogues (i.e. the Donald Trumps of the world). Some Americans, as we witnessed in our last election, are fully willing to risk disaster, and we need to be mindful that we’ve reached the point where a Donald Trump could carry 60 million votes in the U.S. A Trump victory would have been impossible, say, 10 years ago. The idea that Americans posses some quality that exempts us from the forces of chaos can be dismissed now as nursery story. (It was never the case anyway.)

The economy has been improving steadily since 2009, but the massive inequality and lack of social mobility will not improve with current government policies and hence the problem will only continue to grow until we have yet another large economic shock or downturn (which will come eventually) and those millions of Americans, still treading water (for so long), will simply sink below the surface. We don’t have to imagine what they will try to drag with them under the waves.

The Education Nudge

Yesterday I had the distinct honor of being my youngest son’s guest for VIP Day at his elementary school. Okay…so Mom had to work and I filled in. Anyway, my son’s elementary school reminds me a lot of the one I attended. I have some fond memories of my elementary school years: the field days, the book fairs, the Halloween parties at school, the lunch room gatherings, the learning experiences (of course!), and the teachers who made a difference. I still remember Mrs. Gillett teaching my 1st grade class the alphabet. I still remember Mrs. Chalmers, a 3rd grade teacher, teaching us math, and Mrs. Wilson, a 4th grade teacher, teaching us science. There’s no doubt those early years had an influence on me and my classmates, as our minds were nudged in certain directions. How far and to what extent we can never know for sure. But the clay was soft and impressions made easily.

Of course elementary schools teach the basics in reading, writing, math, etc, etc. But what’s forgotten, or not noticed until you walk around an elementary school like I did yesterday, is that elementary schools also impart or encourage other forms of education that aim to develop character. There are no classes that aim specifically at character education, at least not that I’m aware of, but character education is instilled many other ways. For example, inside my son’s school lunch room, above the entrance, is the following banner:

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The Dictionary Project is an educational charity that hands out free dictionaries to elementary school students. My son got his dictionary last February. Now you might be thinking there are little signs and banners all around the lunch room, but that’s not the case. This particular banner stood out. I don’t recall any others actually. While the teachers may not be asking the two questions on this banner, the environment, combined with repeated exposure, combined with curiosity, do their work. The students sit in this large room for lunch and various other gatherings and events all the time. The students read this banner every day and to some degree absorb its questions about truth and fairness in everything they Think, Say, or Do. (Of course the Dictionary Project also enforced bad grammar by forgetting the needed comas in the first line! But hey, that’s why we have teachers…to correct bad grammar!)

After getting home yesterday, I asked my son about the banner and he repeated the words on the banner verbatim. Whether he pursues the answers to those two questions is a different story, but at least the questions are imprinted in his little mind. And that’s a good start.