Thursday, June 02, 2005

Do Not Belittle Philosophy

Azar Nafisi begins her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by relating one of her oft repeated lines to her students: "do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life." This early indication of her position on literature drew me deep into this book. Her central thesis is that literature cultivates our imagination and nutures our capacity for empathy. When we enter into a piece of fiction, we learn how to allow people to be complex and multi-dimensional. What I love best about this memoir is how Nafisi uses fiction, especially books such as Nabokov's Lolita, to reach her students while they are being bombarded with propaganda and rhetoric that bends them toward dismissing anything or anyone that doesn't live up the narrow ideals of fundamentalism.

Later in the book, she tells her class--which is composed of the generation after the revolution in Iran, and therefore swept up with a very black and white view of moral and immoral existence--how to read literature. She writes: "A novel is not an allegory . . . It is a sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel." I was struck by some of the parallels to my own experience of teaching Philosophy 101 this semester. While I wasn't asking the students to enter into the lives of fictional characters, I was asking students to entertain philosophical arguments that challenged their most deeply held beliefs: is there a God?, am I the same person over time?, does truth exist?

Nafisi describes how the politicization of every detail of life: clothing, novels, food, etc. has stunted many of her students ability to appreciate a novel such as The Great Gatsby. They denounce Gatsby's character as embodying everything that is wrong with the West: shallowness, greed, and immorality. This past semester, on more than one occasion, I was met with similar hostility by my students when I presented them with arguments that complicated the concept of "free will" or that God was trully omnipotent, omniscient or trully good.

One day when we were discussing ethics--in particular the difference between Kantian ethics or Utlitarian ethics--I asked my students to reflect on a newstory that had broken that day on the front page of the New York Times. The piece reported that potentially 26 homicides (I forget the exact number) were committed by our own troops on prisoners of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked my students how a Kantian would approach this. Immediately I was met with outrage. One student shouted out: "those bastards deserved to die! They bombed the Twin Towers." I tried to maintain my composure. Then, another student said: "Isn't it the case that most professors are liberal and want to make us sympathetic to the terrorists?" I was shocked; I could not entice these students to evaluate the question: is it moral to kill prisoners of war? without them diverting to the political rhetoric oozing out of this administration.

Nafisi's book helps me to both understand why this happens, but also emboldens me to continue to force students--even in the midst of this highly politicized era--to challenge what they accept as true, moral, or American, for that matter. It is no fun. And, let me say that I get worried more and more these days that I have right-wing students sending moles into my class to report what I say to David Horowitz's website. But, it is imperative that we do not allow the political rhetoric of this administration to prevent students from learning how to think critically and how to empathize with the unknown other.

While Nafisi admonishes students not to belittle fiction, I will continue to steer students toward the sometimes maddingly convoluted or skeptical arguments of philosophers, just to keep alive that critical mind that does not eat up whatever political rhetoric gets shoved down our throats.