Monday, October 17, 2016

Sometimes you just have to drop back and punt

I was having trouble getting my honors students to discuss Cold Mountain--or even open the book in class--so I stopped what I was doing and made them read. 

Out loud. To each other.

"Pick a passage you consider particularly beautiful," I told them, and they all got really quiet and started thumbing through their books. It took a while before a student got brave enough to break the ice and start reading, but soon the room was humming with Charles Frazier's golden prose.

When they were done, I directed them to the scene in the "naught and grief" chapter where Stobrod and Pangle play fiddle and banjo for the brutal Teague and his henchmen, performing for their lives so passionately that they inspire one of the henchmen to call out, "Good God, these is holy men. Their mind turns on matters kept secret from the likes of you and me." But this plea for the sacredness of beauty falls on deaf ears as Teague gives his men the order to shoot the players in cold blood.

I let that sink in a minute, and then I asked, "What is beauty for?"

We chewed on that question a bit and then moved on to others: Why can't Teague allow music to survive within his private war? What is the function of music, art, and literature in times of suffering? Is it morally questionable to create beauty out of violence and suffering?  Why are we reading a novel about the Civil War when we could get the information more efficiently from a documentary or a history text?

"Because education isn't just about conveying information" is the correct answer. It took a little while, but we got there. I may not have converted the skeptics in the group, the ones who wonder how fiction could have any bearing on their all-important career paths, but at least for a few moments I made them roll some beautiful sentences around in their mouths and think about the power of literature to connect us to "matters kept secret from the likes of you and me."

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