Excerpt from:  "The Unbroken Continuum: Booth/Gregory on Teaching and Ethical Criticism," Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.1 (Winter 2007): 49-60.


The main reason Booth and I talked so obsessively about our pasts, our interests, and our loves — especially our love of wives, children, and students — was our shared sense that not only our loves and interests but also the way we dealt with and expressed those loves and hatreds — not to mention how we dealt with the way others loved or did not love us in return — constituted decisions about our character. They were decisions not just about politics, manners, expediency, or even about affection but decisions that made our souls, decisions that had turned us into the person each of us had become. Booth and I could talk about these topics over and over because the interesting part of these conversations was not limited to the novelty of learning new things. It depended instead on the fact that the complex details of these topics presented an endlessly challenging problem in character analysis.


Not surprisingly, then, the point that Booth and I make about character transformation in our writings about teaching and education is precisely the point that we make when we write about the ethical criticism of literature. As Booth says in The Company We Keep, “Authors play roles by creating characters, and readers and spectators play roles by re-creating them. . . . What is forgotten . . . is that a kind of play-acting with characters . . . a kind of faking of characters, is one of the main ways that we build what becomes our character.” As I say in a separate article,


From the time we are born the sound of story accompanies us like the collective heart beat of humanity, and none of us rejects the opportunity to enlarge ourselves by “trying on” the lives and feelings of fictional characters. . . . Most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. . . . Both within the academy and within society as a whole, someone is always claiming that a given novel, movie, or TV program is either uplifting or degrading, inspiring or demeaning, should be read and seen by everyone or shouldn’t disgrace either video airwaves or the shelves of the public library.



When we scholars who critique literature but who also teach students stop to reflect on the relations between these two activities, what we should see is that, as some Flannery O’Connor character might say, “It ain’t much difference between them two.” Readers’ playacting and identification as described byBooth and me have shaping consequences for readers’ ethical imaginations, but it is worth pointing out that this activity is not substantially different from the playacting and identification that students engage in with their teachers, which also has shaping consequences for their ethical imaginations. To be the agent of such consequences is no small responsibility. As Booth says,


Anyone who embraces teaching as a vocation takes on considerable power with that embrace. . . . The power that a good teacher exercises, whether explicitly sought or even consciously repudiated, is the power to transform souls. When college teachers are fully successful, they are successful beyond any of their conscious intentions about particular subjects: they make converts, they make souls that have been turned around to face a given way of being and moving in the world.


Booth and I were always convinced that disciplinary content is only a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end of education is to stimulate students to acquire a vision of how they might live their lives differently because of the skills and passions the course you teach puts them awash in, and, while the disciplinary content of your course is naturally your mechanism, your exercise field, for teaching the skills and passions that transforms students’ lives, that content is, after all, just a mechanism, and the aim of education is not to concentrate all of one’s life on mastering mechanisms.  The aim of life is to master it, to cease being creatures of impulse and passion, and to achieve autonomy of mind and spirit. The modeling of the teacher’s approach to his or her content, as well as his or her modeling of relations with students, carries home the ethical effects of autonomy more than do the details of course content. As I say in an article on teacherly ethos,


If the teacher exhibits an ethos of passion, commitment, deep interest, involvement, honesty, curiosity, excitement, and so on, then what students are moved to imitate is not the skill or the idea directly, but the passion, commitment, excitement, and interest that clearly vivifies the life of the teacher. . . . It’s never just for the sake of the skill or idea alone that the learner learns it, but for the sake of the life that is heightened, vivified, intensified, and enriched by means of the skill or idea. The possibility of such added value to learning [is] conveyed . . . by the . . . teacher who has already integrated those skills and ideas into his or her life and thus offers us as students, via an appropriately vivid teacherly ethos, an existential invitation to, an existential reason for, learning. (2001: 77 – 78)


For Booth and me, the goal of a good life, and thus the goal of all real education, is, simply, human flourishing, where “flourishing” is not defined solely as material success or comfort — living merely in order to possess lots of toys and cash is not a flourishing human life — but instead means that a person gradually acquires the skills, the knowledge, and the ideas for living a life that is personally enriched, existentially autonomous, socially responsible, intellectually perspicuous, and morally defensible. The main instrument for learning how to live such a life — and in such a life, the process of learning how to live it is inseparable from the final aim of having it — is an active, informed, and thoughtful ethical criticism: a persistent inquiry into the influences that help turn us into the people we become. Inquiries that take this perspective on literature and life are inquiries that exist on an unbroken continuum.

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