Monday, November 12, 2007

Reflections on university common texts

A few days ago I mentioned on this blog parental opposition to the University of St. Thomas English department's 2007 "common text": Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. The group of concerned parents has been in contact with the St. Thomas English department, and has set up a website: UST Class Action.

The parental group believes that, not only is Atwood's book sexually graphic, but it is also blatently anti-Catholic. They describe it as "vulgar, sexually offensive and anti-Catholic." Since I haven't read A Handmaid's Tale, I'm not in a good position to confirm or deny what these parents say. Certainly, from the examples they give, Atwood's book contains some very vulgar and explicit language. And from the quotations they provide, the argument that the book is intentionally anti-Catholic is also quite convincing. Refer to the link above if you want to read for yourself.

My post, though, is more of a reflection on university common texts. At most universities, English instructors of introductory classes have quite a bit of freedom regarding how they teach their course and what they assign their students to read. Among the only common elements is a "common text," which all students read. In my mind, the common text should establish a vision of sorts. It should answer the question of what English is about: it should display the basic philosophy and drive of the English department and what it hopes to accomplish in conveying knowledge and wisdom to its students.

So why would a department choose a text like Atwood's? I can't fathom the beginning of an answer to that question. To me, literature involves the exploration of the nature of man. It asks and seeks to answer, at least in part, the deepest questions: Why do we exist? Is there meaning to suffering? It is the good, the true and the beautiful as expressed by written words. Do we find this in Atwood's text. My first guess would be in the negative, but anybody who has read the text is free to chime in.

As a student of literature and a future teacher (I will probably be teaching Winona State University's common text to incoming freshmen next fall), I am deeply concerned with where the study of literature is headed. I believe the problems at St. Thomas have less to do with anti-Catholicism and more to do with a general lack of direction in the study of literature.

The first thing a department should do, in my opinion, is establish some first principles -- and here's where a Catholic college has an advantage. At St. Thomas, a Catholic university, those first principles could include the reigious affirmation of some of those deep questions. Life, and suffering, do have meaning, which is found in Jesus Christ. Shouldn't a Catholic university's common text express this clearly?

A couple suggestions for St. Thomas' 2008 common text:
1. Dante's Divine Commedy.
2. Hilaire Belloc's The Path to Rome
3. Flannery O'Connor's collected short stories
4. G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy
5. Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest
6. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
7. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

There are so many more works that I could list, but what these seven share is a sacramental vision that is explicitly Catholic -- something that should be "common" to all into English courses at a Catholic university.

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