Did you know you are smarter than the fastest computer on the planet?” I whispered conspiratorially to my second-hour sophomores. “You can’t do math as fast or remember as much as a computer. But only your brain, the human brain, can understand metaphor.”
I invoked my best Mr. Keating impression, pouring out everything I knew and loved about poetry. I wanted more for my students than simply trudging through a list of poetic devices or teaching them the difference between metaphor and simile. I longed for words to come alive with possibility as they read a poem, for them to notice all the ways that words create images and images connect with ideas. I wanted poetry to do for them what it had always done for me.
“Poetry is an equation but it doesn’t compute. Only you, with your mind full of images and ideas and understandings can make ‘hope’ equal ‘a thing with feathers.’” One by one, I pulled students to the front of the class to attend to Billy Collins’s Introduction to Poetry. Together, we found metaphors and brainstormed wildly what it means to take a poem and “press an ear against its hive.” They knew more than they expected, a surprise we all pleasantly enjoyed.
Those students may not remember any more, but that day they understood. I know because of the sentences they left behind on their desks describing Collins’s approach to poetry. They wrote of curiosity and patience, and shared a willingness to “walk inside the poem’s room/and feel the walls for a lightswitch.” I posted their responses on the wall and whenever we got stuck I used their own words to remind them how to approach a poem with proper reverence.
Students without Chests
It has been five years since I stood in front of students like these. Pregnant with my third child, I left the classroom for practical reasons, but also because I felt a little defeated. Instinctively, I recognized poetry’s importance, but found myself unable to defend its potency when compared to the gravitas of the science classes being taught across the hall. My colleagues emphasized skills: practical skills, job skills, S.T.E.M. skills. The humanities felt further stripped of significance every year of my career, which caused me to begin doubting myself.
The new curriculum guidelines suggested we spend more time interpreting informational texts and less time enjoying literature. I could sense that these priorities emphasized a divide between the things we can know, which are worth studying, and the things we can only feel. Reality belongs on the ground floor composed of what we can see, taste, and feel—what we can trust. Straining for the clouds are the felt truths and values we can only know for ourselves and thus should not try to impose on anyone else. They aren’t absolute, they are merely felt. Poetry belongs to the clouds.
I felt compelled to separate out what I loved most—stories, poems, and even my faith. Because they were not considered “true” in any objective or meaningful way, they were to be treated as a private hobby, a playground for dreamers. As an educator, I was to emphasize useful skills that would shape my students into efficient and rational creatures most likely to succeed in our modern economy.
C.S. Lewis warned against such thinking in The Abolition of Man. He saw it creeping into the textbooks of his era, noting that the student completing his English homework “has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics” are all at stake. In college, I was encouraged to prioritize the reader’s response to a text rather than the so-called “correct” interpretation. This line of thinking also suggested that there was no such thing as a “correct” emotional response. But, as Lewis warns, such an approach actually teaches students that their own emotions and the emotions of the poet are “contrary to reason and contemptible.” By separating facts from values, we ask students to harden their hearts and develop skepticism toward emotion in a text and in themselves. Refusing to train their emotional sensibilities does not make them more reasonable. Lewis argues that it makes them “easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”
When we deny the reality of right and wrong ways to respond to beauty or horror, we end up creating what Lewis termed, “men without chests.” The chest, the symbolic seat of emotions, represents the “indispensable liaison officer” between the rational thought of our brains and the wordless animal instincts in our guts. It ought to provide us with “emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments” that can guide us to make moral conclusions from the facts because, as Lewis writes, “from propositions about fact alone, no moral conclusion can ever be drawn.” When we major in facts alone, we fail to produce the kinds of citizens who know how to utilize them.
Setting our Emotional Compass
Two recent books aim to resurrect values in the realm of shared reality and truth. Hannah Anderson’s All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment and Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books each offer methods for training our emotions to become stable sentiments that can help us navigate the world.
Motivated in part by her experience with the chaos of social media, Anderson’s invitation to discernment reminds readers that truth is one of the forms of goodness we ought to pursue, but it cannot be found unless we are honest people. Truth “relies on the character of the one handling the facts.” Rather than casting truth as something easy to measure and determine, Anderson recognizes that we will never discover the kind of truth that can restore our shared reality unless we are perceiving correctly.
To live in community with one another, we need to honor what is worthy of honor, which requires us to acknowledge that “not every innovation is an improvement, celebrities do not automatically deserve our consideration, and the latest news story may not be worth reading.” Unless we define the goodness worthy of our attention, we will begin to honor behaviors and ideas that are worthless, or worse, dangerous.
Prior further adds to the conversation by demonstrating how the practice of reading well can train us to engage rightly with the world. “Great books offer perspectives more than lessons” and invite us to witness the consequences of virtue in action or the lack thereof. Reading well allows us to engage emotionally with complex situations, which in term develops virtue “because action follows affective response.” By training ourselves in this way, we become more discerning and virtuous when we are called to respond to real-life challenges such that we “do not love what is wrong to love or fail to love what should be loved.”
Without virtue, humans become dangerous to the world. Just as facts divorced from virtue are rendered worthless, Prior explains the ease by which pragmatism can corrupt the very virtues we need. Humans trained to view the world through a pragmatic lens see only what is useful, even when they look at fellow humans. When we lack an appetite for virtue, like animals, we will compete for resources rather than valuing our neighbors and seeking their good.
Only humans can value the world in the manner it deserves. When we develop the virtues, we become better neighbors. “Justice,” Prior writes, “can be understood as the virtue of a community, the harmony of all the souls that form it.” Since every action is “socially consequential,” we must teach the virtues to produce humans who know how to discern right from wrong.
Uniting Facts with Values
Outside of their books, both Anderson and Prior model what they write in their online interactions. Each displays gentle courage and a willingness to examine church practices. They stand on behalf of the vulnerable, but they are not unique. They just happen to have public voices decrying the wrongs perpetrated against vulnerable populations and suggesting holistic solutions.
It should come as no surprise that these women—and others like them—have felt a stirring to return to shared definitions of the virtues. Societal peace is only possible when we agree that certain behaviors are virtuous and others are not. We can only expect right behaviors when we recognize that they spring from more than facts alone. These books form a striking harmony as they speak of the kinds of attitudes and habits that form us into people of virtue and discernment.
Each offers a way to reunite facts with values. For Anderson, it starts with acknowledging that there are things in the world worthy of our value and when we honor them accurately we learn discernment. Prior adds an additional layer by demonstrating that there are appropriate emotional responses to the world discovered only by adopting virtues, which make us into people with character. Both agree with Anderson’s statement about our collective need to develop our virtues because they are “principles to help us figure out whether something is good [when] we can’t rely on behavioral lists. Virtues are principles that develop our taste for goodness.”
Both women ask readers to use our rational minds to train our hearts, and allow our hearts to mold our minds. Doing so keeps us from remaining merely rational and utilitarian, permitting us instead to value the things of this world rightly. By showing the tangible weight of our morality, both women call for a return to literature as a way of restoring our moral compass. As Prior explains, literary writing “uses language in a way that relies on layers of memory, meaning, and associations,” a skill only humans can develop.
Rather than a playground for fools, the humanities are a training ground for the thoughtful and a realm for practicing neighborly care. But also still a playground where humans get to enjoy doing what only humans can do. Only we can make the emotional connections and outrageous leaps required to appreciate the truths embedded in poetry and literature. Studying the humanities allows the human imagination to transcend barriers of culture, location, and time to learn how to better love our neighbors.
Cover photo by Thought Catalog.