The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.” - Aristotle
There are three skills that most language arts and social studies teachers dread teaching; writing, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills. This unholy trinity comprises not the foundation of every poor student paper or presentation, but also serves as the root explanation for why so many university freshmen struggle so much. It is very difficult to teach students how to organize their thoughts, to construct rationales for their beliefs, to question assumptions found within a text or in the world around them, or to explore possibilities outside the very concrete.
As a high school social studies teacher (and a former English instructor before), I have seen many students get frustrated whenever they are asked to explain themselves or what another might be saying. If pressed, some facts might be tossed in, irrespective of their overall relevance to the topic at hand. After all, facts must be sacrosanct, no, since someone famous wrote them down? The notion that interpretations shape understanding, with facts being only one component out of many, is very difficult for people to grasp. I saw that quite a bit yesterday during an activity where they were working on analyzing primary source material from the late 19th century on tenement houses, child labor laws, and urban poverty. I have my work cut out for me on Monday, to say the least, especially since they have a countywide skills assessment test this Tuesday.
I have thought quite a bit on this issue for the past couple of weeks, before I began to realize that there might be a societal cause to the three root problems I listed above. Today, it is very difficult to contemplate matters, to dwell upon them and to reflect upon possibilities and consequences. Due to the fast-paced, 24/7, "life is short, ____ hard" attitudes prevalent in American society in particular, there is not as much value placed anymore upon contemplation. Philosophy, the searching for truths, has become a more and more marginalized field. Those who stop and question assumptions are too often branded as being "pretentious" or "elitist," even when it would behoove more people to reflect upon the consequences of a certain course of action before acting. This last attitude certainly has been seen in the 2008 Presidential Election, with McCain touting his "decisiveness," while many of his supporters have criticized Obama for being "out of touch" for his ponderous, reflective approach to many issues. Sound bites are preferable to exploratory policy discussions, right?
Some of this negativity towards contemplation is seen in how certain readers react to certain books. Read most online reviews (and even many print ones) and there often is not much in the way of a contemplative attitude toward a book; the book either "works" or "fails" on the level of plot/characterization without much consideration given to thematic discourse or to how the text has been constructed. I have seen many negative comments in regards to Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with most of them blasting her for writing a slow-paced novel that contains "little action." I wonder how many of them would care to admit that Clarke set out to write exactly that sort of novel, one that requires the reader to stop and to contemplate the character interactions, the witty repartees, or the conscious efforts Clarke made to emulate the prose of 19th century British authors such as Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen. It is one thing to admit that this isn't the sort of novel one didn't care to read; it is a very ignorant reader who claims that Clarke's novel is "poor" without taken into account (or rather, even understanding that such things exist in the first place) her apparent goals in writing that matter.
Almost two weeks ago, the first Blogger Book Club discussion of Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration led to some interesting splits of opinion regarding Disch's approaches to characterization and plot development. Some admitted that the novel had an "academic" feel to it, as if somehow that were a vague negative, even though I suspect (based on the comments that follow) that such claims were more to indicate the others' reactions to the story and to Louis Sacchetti. I do have to admit that processing that novel takes a lot of work. Disch didn't write an "easy" novel, nor one that could be processed solely on a superficial level. He aimed (often succeeding, but with some debatable missteps) to tell a multi-layered story in which our own means of interacting with a story would come into play, since after all the reader is given the same narrative point-of-view that the prison guards on the inside would have been reading and reacting to during the course of the story contained in Louis's journal. How does one process such a story, if one bothers at all?
That last question I suspect underlies a great many of the situations I mentioned above. Could it be more a case that whenever a reading requires contemplative thought rather than immediate processing/reacting that a dissonance is created between the Reader and the Text? Or is there more to the notion that many criticisms of "difficult" texts are but reflections of the Reader's cognitive disinterest in contemplating texts? That is something I shall contemplate more, I do believe...