I’ve been thinking of late about claims that education is or is not a moral exercise. My readers should not be surprised that I’ve always thought of teaching as shot through with morality. Today’s lecture, on its face far from discussions of sex and stealing that some folks think of when they think of teaching morality, should illustrate why I’m convinced the way I am.
Being that paper one is due tonight, I did not assign any reading homework for class today. (There’s a bit of practical morality right there.) So I was relatively free to do what I would, unobligated to honor my students’ efforts to read what I’ve assigned. I spent the first half hour (roughly) talking about poetry in English and in ancient Hebrew. For the former I talked about rhyme, meter, and the defiance of conventional spoken English, and for the latter I taught the various kinds of parallelism that make meaning in Psalms and about the different genres of Psalm in the Psalter.
The lecture’s content was technical from start to finish. We treated no narratives and little poetic text. Yet by lecture’s end, if my students were listening, they learned that Psalmic poetry, probably alien to most of them, operates under its own conventional rules, most of the time. They learned some of the terms by which Biblical scholars attempt to think their way into the performance contexts of these ancient religious verses, and they saw (by means of some close reading) some of the deviations from the categories that happen almost as soon as one cracks the actual Psalter.
In other words, my students had the opportunity today to see a system of rationality whose contours they could not reach without instruction, a venerable practice of poetry that could be analyzed only approximately but should never be neglected with regards to structure. Such a poetic culture, I hope I demonstrated to them, deserves study and respect, and even with those, it’s not subject to easy categorization.
Such is the moral instruction that literature teaching ought to provide. Sure, we could spend our time telling the kids what not to do (and we do some of that, especially in the opening weeks when we talk about plagiarism), but more important, at least for the teacher of literature, is the ongoing moral lessons that come with discovering all at once the structure of the alien and the inadequacy of easy categories and the necessity of trying out categories. It’s no guarantee that my students won’t turn out to be monsters, but it does exercise those intellectual faculties that, in potentia at least, stand to live with other people, real other people.