The Collegian
Sunday, October 25, 2020

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OPINION: Reading in a time of catastrophe

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. This editorial contains spoilers. 

I suspect that students entering my literature classes this semester will be asking themselves some version of the following questions: In light of the global pandemic, economic crisis and ongoing racial injustice, why should we prioritize reading books? What value does literature have in the face of such catastrophe?

Whether you like to read, as a student at the University of Richmond, you can expect to read a lot. But if we are risking our health and possibly our lives this semester for the sake of our education, and in the face of so much social and political turmoil, then let’s be certain we are reading for the right reasons.

At its best, reading literature is a fortifying act. It can galvanize us to confront our current catastrophe without flinching and it can embolden us to endure the dark days ahead. If you think of reading as impractical, escapist entertainment, think again. 

We must prioritize reading now more than ever. By reading deeply and widely, as we do in the English department, you will begin to root yourself in traditions of thought that are more profound and consequential than the superficial materialism that characterizes modern American life. And you can call upon these traditions, not to escape life, but to understand it and survive it, to confront it and to change it. 

Over the past six months, I have often called upon one of my literary heroes — Kurt Vonnegut — whose life and fiction have a lot to teach us about enduring calamity. Vonnegut knew what it meant to suffer. 

He grew up in Indiana during the Great Depression; his mother died by suicide over Mother’s Day weekend, shortly before he was sent to Europe during World War II as a member of the 106th infantry division. He was captured by the German army at the Battle of the Bulge and held as a POW in Dresden when Allied forces firebombed the city, dropping 4,000 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices and killing anywhere from 25,000 to as much as 250,000 civilians. 

Vonnegut sheltered himself in an underground meat locker attached to a slaughterhouse where he was being held prisoner and survived the bombing, but he lived with the consequences of these harrowing events his entire life, suffering from clinical depression and recurring thoughts of suicide. And yet, despite all of this, he produced some of the most moving and compassionate (and funny!) fiction of the postwar period. 

In one of his great novels, “Breakfast of Champions,” Vonnegut asks what it means for a culture to be “healthy” — a topical question for us, given the intractable realities of COVID-19, white supremacy, state-sponsored violence and a fast-approaching and potentially unstoppable global climate catastrophe. In this post-apocalyptic novel, France and Britain have been destroyed; the environment is in a state of accelerated decay, having been completely stripped of its resources; racism is rampant; poverty is pervasive and human beings are the only animal species still in existence. And on the protagonist’s gravestone, we discover the novel’s central thesis about health: “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.” 

For Vonnegut, health has as much to do with ethical and environmental considerations as it does with physical or psychological well-being. If we are free of pathogens but we haven’t shared our wealth, then we’re not healthy. If we’ve decimated the environment in the pursuit of short-term economic prosperity, then we’re not healthy. If we continue to discriminate — against people of color, against women, against the poor — then we’re not healthy. What Vonnegut understood, and what our political and corporate leaders could stand to remember, is that in moments of great crisis the health of entire communities has to be privileged over individual self-interest. 

This has been a hard lesson for many Americans to learn, and elite colleges and universities are partly to blame. Over the past 40 years, business has taken over the mission of higher education, bullying the liberal arts and especially the humanities to the margins of academic life (often with faculty, student and administrative consent). Indeed, every American president in my lifetime (I’m 45) has made higher education all about the GDP and the earning potential of every graduate entering the marketplace. 

Market norms are now the dominant norms of higher education, and while elite universities might speak the language of the liberal arts and pay symbolic homage to the humanities, their interests are principally financial, and they lend their support to those sectors of higher learning that attract the biggest donors and wealthiest parents and that promise to graduate students who will take over as the next generation of economic elites. 

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A grotesque culmination of this trend is personified in the current American president. He and his administration exemplify what an education in business can look like without literature, without art, without any sense of history, without deep learning in philosophy and religion. He is the apotheosis of the malevolence and greed that has come to characterize  American individualism. Everything that the liberal arts stand for, such as rigorous intellectual inquiry, social and economic justice, equity, inclusion, courageous ethical engagement and environmental stewardship, is imperiled by a market philosophy that promotes self-interest and individual achievement — “excellence” in the language of the corporate class — at the expense of self-sacrifice and a commitment to the public good. 

We are in the mess we are in, in part, because we have forgotten that education is not just for the market and our hard work in the classroom should not just be about individual success, high GPAs or maximizing earning potential. Albert Einstein expressed a similar critique more than 70 years ago. 

“This crippling of individuals,” he observed, “I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.”

Taken together, Einstein and Vonnegut make clear that we were already a very sick nation long before the outbreak of COVID-19. 

We can begin to counteract this destructive trend by returning to our literary traditions, by taking seriously those writers (and there are many) who have much more to offer than a simple “take what’s yours” ethos, an ethos that is all-too-often the result of an elite education. It’s time we banish “excellence” from our mission statement. Although it may sound like a noble value worth aspiring to, in practice it serves as justification for members of elite institutions to prioritize their individual achievements — whether it’s GPA, prestigious internships, triple majors, another article or book contract or exorbitant starting salaries — at the expense of public well-being. 

And we should only celebrate “thriving” as a value provided it’s not done on the backs and at the exclusion of the poor and marginalized communities our institution claims it seeks to serve. To put it bluntly, it is virtually impossible for individuals preoccupied with their achievements, their “excellence,” to make genuine and meaningful sacrifices for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. Until this happens, our nation will continue to sink under the weight of its narcissism and greed. And unless this happens, we will never be healthy.

We degrade the value of literature, and of the humanities more broadly, at our own peril. If you haven’t taken a course in one of the humanities disciplines, if you’re putting off taking a literature course, or a history course, or a philosophy, religious studies, art history, film, music, classics or rhetoric course, you should make it a priority for this academic year. What we need right now — and what the humanities has to offer — is an expanded range of norms and values that has the potential to radically transform our lives and that can challenge the debilitating force of market norms. 

The economy is critically important and I don’t want to be misunderstood as minimizing this obvious fact. But one cannot simply offer market solutions to challenges that are fundamentally ethical and existential, especially when these so-called solutions only really favor the rich and powerful.

We can decry injustice; we can demand tolerance and celebrate diversity. But this does absolutely nothing to address the fact that wealthy institutions such as UR are beholden to economic elites, and the actions and interests of these elites are often a direct threat to social justice, equity and a diverse and inclusive world.

Reading is a necessary prerequisite to living courageously, selflessly and in the service of the public good. I’m eager to undertake this endeavor with my students this semester in the hopes that we learn to embody the values our university cherishes and our world so desperately needs.

Contact English professor Kevin Pelletier at kpelleti@richmond.edu. 

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