Morris: We’re Getting Only Part of the Story
by Leo Morris
In their campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engaged in seven debates, each lasting an astonishing (by today’s standards) three hours.
The first speaker (which alternated), expounded for an hour. The second candidate responded for 90 minutes. Then, the first speaker was allowed a 30-minute “rejoinder.”
All seven debates were heavily attended, since their subject, slavery, was of profound interest to citizens in the rapidly disintegrating nation (whether it should be expanded into new territories, please note, not whether it should be abolished). Newspapers covered them extensively and intensely, some even printing the full texts.
The paramount issue in the Senate race, it seems fair to say, was thoroughly explored. Voters had every chance to be informed and, we like to think, looking back, were too ashamed to go to the polls if they weren’t.
And what do we have today by contrast? If you’ve ever seen a “debate” between current political candidates, you were treated to journalists rapid-firing questions on a dizzying range of topics, to which answers of one minute were permitted, with perhaps 30 seconds allowed for a rebuttal. Any knowledge of the issues gleaned by voters was undoubtedly, as the saying goes, a mile wide and an inch deep.
And where shall voters desiring more substance go in this short-attention-span era? To political TV commercials and their simple-minded sound bites of banality? To partisan web sites and social media accounts with their utterly depraved forays into character assassination? To the president’s Twitter feed, perhaps, for his latest 140-character fit of pique?
Generations whose primary education is behind them are beyond redemption, I fear. Most of their members are too used to flitting through the cable channels to relieve their boredom and getting their “news” from top-of-the-hour radio headlines and the sneering asides of late-night comics.
The only hope for the survival of the republic is that our schools will instill in the next generations a love of fully engaging the mind, eager to confront nuances, never flinching from subtleties, always on the prowl for contradictions, misdirections and outright dishonesty.
But that hope, alas, is probably futile, which brings me to the main point of today’s rant. (“Finally!” I hear you.)
Beginning this school year, it was recently reported, novels will no longer be studied in Fort Wayne Community School English classes. Instead, excerpts will be used to teach language arts skills. Novels weren’t written to teach state standards, a school system representative told a newspaper, and using excerpts ensures the district “is covering skills Indiana students must learn.”
I can’t find the words to convey how disheartening this is. I don’t know all the “skills” that “state standards” are supposed to cover, but paying attention and staying focused enough to relate the parts to a whole surely isn’t among them.
A novel has a beginning, a middle and an end (though not necessarily in that order, which is one of the serendipitous joys of reading one). It has characters who have conflicts and make or ignore moral distinctions to resolve them. It has a setting that can take us to another place and a plot that can make us reconsider the ups and downs of our own lives.
“[T]he chapters of a novel . . .” said Mortimer Adler in his “How to Read a Book,” often become “relatively meaningless when wrenched from the whole.” You have not grasped a story “until you are familiar with its characters, until you have lived through its events.”
We should not be anxious, he advised, “if all is not clear from the beginning. Actually, it should not be clear then. A story is like life itself; in life, we do not expect to understand events as they occur, at least with total clarity, but looking back on them, we do understand. So the reader of a story, looking back on it after he has finished it, understands the relation of events and the order of actions.”
If we can immerse ourselves in a novel well enough to achieve such clarity, then we will have briefly stepped outside our own existence to experience more of life than we have known: “[We] could not live in this world if we were not able, from time to time, to get away from it . . . If we must escape from reality, it should be to a deeper, or greater, reality. This is the reality of our inner life, of our own unique vision of the world.”
And what, pray tell, can we possibly learn from an “excerpt” of a novel? No more than we can learn from recalling a single memory from our own lives. No more than we can learn about our friends from their hastily typed and heedlessly sent texts. No more than we can learn about the news of the day from headlines. No more than we can learn about national issues from sound bites and the president’s tweets.
Part after part after part and not a whole in sight.
I am a product of Fort Wayne Community Schools, and more than any specific knowledge I learned there, I treasure the love of reading I came away with. It has made me a better person and, I like to think, a good citizen, aware of both my rights and duties and willing and able to engage with the political system that is supposed to address them.
I do not think current students will leave with that love of reading. Instead, they will be reinforced in their habits of superficial engagement and fleeting interests.
High-schoolers today, according to a recent study, are texting, scrolling and using social media instead of reading books and magazines. One in three U.S. high school students did not read a book for pleasure in 2016. In the same time period, 82 percent of 12th-graders visited sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram every day. In the 1970s, about 60 percent of seniors reported reading a book, magazine or newspaper every single day. In 2016, only 16 percent did.
Forget Lincoln and Douglas. Look for debates in the near future to feature 30-second answers and 15-second rebuttals. That will give the political experts all the material they need to tweet about. And all voters will have the capacity to absorb.
Parts, parts and more parts.