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Once a Bass writing tutor at Yale, I’ll never forget one Asian student. Students could use a 30-minute session to discuss any writing project, and this was just before the dawn of Wikipedia as the go-to source for students with questions. His class had read “The Love Song by J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, and the freshman was distraught, ready to drop the class.
“Everyone in class knew Lazarus and talked about him,” he said in amazement, referring to the line in Eliot’s haunting poem: “To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.’”
“How do they all know him?” he pressed me. “Do you know who he is?”
A record high, near 725,000 international students, about half graduate students and half undergraduates, attended U.S. schools in the 2010-11 school year, reports the Institute of International Education. Those attending top colleges must fulfill requirements in English or literature. Many arrive poorly equipped to understand the themes and literary devices that enrich so much of American, English and Irish literature.
The international students are not alone. Religious-service and religious-studies attendance is on the decline among teenagers, and teachers in diverse public schools may hesitate to analyze the Bible’s contributions to modern poetry, fiction and essays, particularly when the writers are critical, lashing out at absurdities or contradictions, society’s immorality, or loss of innocence. Many students who are unfamiliar with the Bible miss the nuanced and broad allusions, imagery, metaphors and symbols teeming in the novels of James Joyce, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and others.
Among the reference books in my office was a basic children’s Bible in my office – a quick summary for most students, an investment of a few hours of time. I promptly handed over my copy to the student. He glanced at the title, handed it back, and explained he was Muslim.
“You don’t have to believe what you read,” I advised, promising him that over the next four years he would take issue with much of what he’d read in college. Critical reading and self-examination are never dangerous. Reading and writing about new ideas can shift or reinforce values. “You can’t join the discussion if you don’t understand what others in the class are talking about.”
I also urged him to discover common ground with the Koran and contrast values from the two books, to write about his concerns and raise them in discussions during class and with friends. And remembering how many students born and raised in the United States, native English speakers, struggled with under-reading or over-reading literary passages, I cautioned against wild stretches; comparisons were fine as long as he relied on evidence.
Before long, the class and the American culture became less of a puzzle for him. It’s empowering for students to explore the great ideas that are the foundation of a culture, lending support or critique. In “Character,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.” This is not to belittle religion, as Emerson suggests that religion endures schisms as “protest against the impieties of the time, which had originally been protests against earlier impieties , but had lost their truth.”
Literature is a partner in exploring morality, truth and the “reaffirmations of the conscience correcting the evil customs” of our times.
Emerson expresses confidence that morals triumph over any cruel sect or trend: “Men will learn to put back the emphasis peremptorily on pure morals, always the same, not subject to doubtful interpretation, with no sale of indulgences[,] no massacre of heretics, no female slaves, no disfranchisement of women, no stigma on race; to make morals the absolute test, and so uncover and drive out the false religions.”
Stories of redemption, rebirth, power, charity, exile or exclusion are driving metaphors of our day. Lazy or timid students depend on the interpretations provided by others. The most energetic and curious relish their own investigations, and this requires delving into the great ideas and the assumptions held by others.
As society becomes more diverse, as English literature is influenced by writers from India, Africa or China, scholars must familiarize themselves with other religions and cultures. New connections are constantly underway, as demonstrated by the Society of Biblical Literature looking into formation of a Society for Qur’anic Studies.