Thursday, June 21, 2012

Anti-Christ . . . Really?

Okay, I can see where you'd think the assertion that shortcuts such as SparkNotes are the Anti-Christ is an overstated attention grabber or the heated rant of some nut job trying to save his flock from falling into the Eternal Pit of Ignorance.

Still, many founders or spreaders or perpetuators of religions have attempted to share their wisdom through literature -- parables, fables, myths, aphorisms, proverbs, koans and such. Implied in this mode of communication is the belief that the listener/reader (but only the worthy, called or chosen?) will have the necessary vision to penetrate the veil of language and behold the Truth; or, to use the agricultural metaphor, to find beneath the chaff of words the Grains of Truth.

But also implied in this is that language -- a narrative, for instance -- is part of the truth and inseparable from it, and to try to extract the truth from the story is like pulling a loose thread from a shirt that eventually unravels the whole garment (this image is badly paraphrased from Flannery O'Connor's original).

In this paradigm, readers arrive at the truth as part of their journey toward it. It is cumulative. The process is part of it. It is not an unraveling, but a gathering together. The poet William Blake said to his readers, "I give you the end of a golden string, / Only wind it into a ball, / It will lead you in at Heaven's gate / Built in Jerusalem's wall."

So when students use SparkNotes or other such things as shortcuts, they go straight to the "ball" without the "winding," straight to the grains without the chaff, straight to the truth without the language that is part of it. In this case, SparkNotes is a cherry-flavored Flintstone vitamin promising health without the need to acquire a taste for nutritious food.

Hence, not only does the student not get the whole story, but the intellectual and imaginative muscles needed to grasp the fullness of the world's great wisdom are not exercised and begin to weaken. The student gets an answer without his imagination being educated. If it is true that study-guide shortcuts seriously hinder the student's efforts ever to know the truth that will set her free, then they certainly can be called -- in a playful manner, of course -- the Anti-Christ.

I would argue that our job as literature teachers is to educate the imagination, not provide the kinds of simplistic answers or formulae provided by SparkNotes and required by standardized tests. Once we educate the imagination, whether students want to use it to get into Bithlo or Jerusalem is up to them.

But is it even possible to wean 21st-century students from SparkNotean shortcuts? That's a matter at which we'll flail away in a future post.

No comments:

Post a Comment