During my senior spring at college, I was a teaching assistant for the Cornell Prison Education Program. My students were nine inmates at the medium-security, Cayuga Correctional Facility in Moravia, New York. Every Tuesday night at six o’clock, they would swagger into our classroom and guffaw: “Yo Mr. C! Riley! What the fuck was up with that story?” Then, they would spend the next three hours pounding both the texts and each other with such withering salvos of street smarts and home-grown intellect that on several occasions, the guard left his desk in the lobby to frown disapprovingly at the ruckus within.
It occurred to me, fleetingly, that these nine individuals—self-proclaimed powerlifters, family men, computer geeks, adherents of the faith, legal clerks, teachers, and authors, to name a few—probably thought of the class as a welcome distraction from the monotony of prison routine. A few also confessed that they regretted not “taking school more seriously” in their youths. All told, I didn’t dwell much on their underlying motivations for taking part in the program, or on my own reasons for signing up to work with them. The work felt authentic and refreshing. And besides, I’d managed to hit a wall of pure burn-out and failure in pretty much every other area of my personal and academic life. Getting off campus was a relief in and of itself.
I’ve since graduated and taken up my first job as a high school English teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu. And the past semester and a half of teaching sophomore literature and composition have forced me to consider, for the first time, what it truly means to “take school seriously”—what it means to be fully invested in one’s own education. It’s not that my sophomores at Punahou don’t “take school seriously.” On the contrary, as far as grades are concerned, they are feverishly serious. Still, most of them admit that their enthusiasm for a piece of literature largely depends on their teacher’s ability to bring the text to life and, above all else, on their own ability to “relate” to whatever we’re reading. Whereas my prison students would explode into passionate, self-directed discussion no matter how prepared my co-teacher and I had come to class that night or how obscure the course material at hand, many of my sophomores feel like they have to grit their teeth through texts that feel largely irrelevant and uninspiring—even downright boring.
I’m curious to explain this discrepancy because ultimately, I want all of my students (whether they be inmates or high schoolers) to find more consistent joy, authenticity, and fulfillment in literature—to feel deeply moved by what they read and write. I want them to recognize that literature, along with all art, embodies humanity’s quest to make meaning out of its own experience and condition. At the very least, I want all of my students, including those who are not called to become writers or artists, to understand the gravity of that quest. “Even if you’re not a scientist or technologist,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson of STEM education and industry in America, “you will value that activity…without it, we might as well just slide back to the caves, because that’s where we’re headed, right now, broke!” Someone as intelligent as Mr. Tyson should recognize that writers, artists, and philosophers contribute just as much to our prosperity as the scientists and technologists he always speaks so highly of. But I cannot be so sure that this understanding is widespread. In a society that is already so obsessed with efficiency, productivity, and wealth, I am not willing to take any chances with my students. They must know that the humanity’s well-being depends just as heavily on the search for humanistic wisdom as it does on the search for scientific truth—that the world has more than just technical problems, but moral and philosophical problems too.
It is the full potency of these moral and philosophical problems, which Faulkner, in his Nobel banquet speech, called “problems of the spirit,” that my prison students “took more seriously” than my sophomores—not because they are more skilled or intelligent, but because they understandably have more life experience and emotional maturity. Their willingness to throw themselves so wholeheartedly at seemingly “unrelatable” text proves just how far their minds and hearts are willing to travel in search of fresh hope, beauty, and truth.
I can’t “teach” life experience in the classroom or bestow high-schoolers with emotional maturity. But I want to believe that I can guide my students through any piece of literature so that its emotional and moral payload becomes vivid—so that they discover within it their own neglected feelings and dissembled “problems of the spirit.” Another Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow, pointed out over forty years ago that the furious chaos of modern life tends to banish consideration of these problems to a “quiet zone” beneath the “whirling mind of a modern reader.” Many of my students seem to suffer from this “whirling mind” syndrome. Some are so distracted, fragmented, and inundated that they have forgotten what it means to be genuinely curious about something in the first place. “But I don’t care about learning,” one of my students blurted out helplessly and rather chillingly last semester, when I tried to reassure her that her skills were improving. “I care about the grade!”
Still, I believe that teachers of the humanities are uniquely prepared to help students rediscover their curiosity, their sincerity, and their more secure, level-headed selves who think clearly and feel deeply. I have faith, as Bellow did, that their “purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense”—that it is “possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone” and find them “devoutly waiting for us.” “Devout” is an apt word. For what more do I want to see in my students than a certain kind of faithfulness in literature’s capacity to offer respite from the madness of the world? Joy in the spiritual company of all humanity? I want them to understand that their lives will be full of complexity and adversity because the world is full of complexity and adversity. And in the wake of this realization, I want all of my students, including those who will not pursue careers in the humanities, to recognize that their favorite words, ideas, and people will always be ready, sitting on the nearest bookshelf, to lift up their spirits.