I invest a lot of energy asking my college students to unlearn the pattern of summary and personal reflection that was enough to to earn a good grade in high school. I emphasize repeatedly that their high school teachers didn’t do anything wrong by teaching them what they needed to do in order to get through high school, but that I would be negligent if I did not ask them to level up.
We all want to be right. The truth is that being right is often the easy part. Reading literature teaches us the value of getting things wrong. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy famously have to see they’re wrong about themselves and each other before they can fall in love. When they finally get together, it’s not entirely for the reasons we’d like.
Literature is all about learning to work well with uncertainty and discomfort. Lolita seduces us into a place of sympathy with a malevolent madman; the Marabar Caves are the centre of A Passage to India – something bad happened, but we never know what; or those disappearances in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which are never explained. Novels matter most when they immerse us in ambiguous stories where we can’t get comfortable.
Well-taught, the humanities train us to develop a deep, rigorous attention that accepts uncertainty, ambiguity and discomfort as precious, not unwelcome. The question is always: What makes this text strange?
Letting go of the longing to get the answer right teaches people not to cling to fixed ideas but to embrace uncertainty, and to prioritise being interesting over being safe. But learning how to be wrong is an acquired skill. It is not innate. Instinctively, we think we’re right, fixate on goals and outcomes, and repeat thought patterns that are safe but limiting. –Sophie Gee, Sydney Morning Herald