I recently began teaching my sixty-second semester of English courses. In my own reading and in the texts I choose to share with my students, I have always gravitated toward iconoclastic authors, meaning those who “buck the system,” “make waves,” “rock the boat,” and attack the “sacred cows” of society. Choose your own cliche. Such authors and their texts are not difficult to find, for there seems to be a fairly direct correlation between texts with a subversive bent and literary greatness: Shakespeare, Swift, P.B. Shelley, Twain, Kate Chopin, Joseph Heller, James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, are among my favorite subversives. Much of this tendency of mine I attribute to my Jesuit college education at Xavier University, for the Jesuits have long been a thorn in the paw of Catholic orthodoxy. Those educators were the first to expose me to the great philosophers and truly to encourage me to think for myself and to question darn near everything.
At the onset of every new semester, especially in the age of “trigger warnings,” I inform my students, who are all either juniors or seniors, that I will consider myself deficient in my job if I fail to offend them at some point in the semester. I tell them directly that I hope to challenge many of their notions of what is “right, true, and good.” I do not overtly tell them what to think but to think. The fact is that, at their age, most of their thoughts on such concepts have never been questioned. Most of their ideas, values, and beliefs are not truly their own. For the entirety of their lives, most of them have simply tilted their heads back, opened their mouths, and swallowed whatever the adult influencers in their lives have poured in. They are usually not principles they have arrived at as the result of serious scholarship, consideration, or discernment, and they almost never have been exposed to ways of thinking and believing outside of the ones with which they have been inculcated. For the most part, they merely parrot the ideas, values, and beliefs that have been thrust upon them by various adults and, increasingly, by their peers.
I do none of this out of orneriness; although, I won’t deny it plays a role. Because I teach either actual college credit or college prep courses, I am aware that the majority of them will soon be off and living on college campuses with extremely diverse student bodies and faculties who will not necessarily share much of my students’ small town-engendered view of the world. They will be without those folks whom they have so long leaned on to form their ethics; therefore, it is the perfect opportunity to begin thinking for themselves and to decide for themselves what is actually “right, true, or good” for themselves. The sad fact is that we adults – intentionally or not – often fill them with some pretty awful ideas. I firmly believe I would be doing them a grave disservice if I sent them off to the university intellectually naive, under-armored, and unarmed.
I would argue that such a reexamination of the basic tenets of one’s belief and value system is beneficial at any age. Personally, I was in my late teens before I shed the majority of any racist ideas I’d learned; in my late twenties before I let go of homophobic language and insensitivities; in my thirties, I became a feminist; and in my forties, I jettisoned the narrowminded elements of my Catholic upbringing. I was led to the majority of these awakenings by iconoclastic authors who challenged my own learned sense of the “right, the true, and the good,” and I continue on my quest to be a better person by continuing to seek out alternative views.
Nothing is “right, true, or good” simply because an elder or a book says it is. I would challenge anyone who reads this to take a personal inventory to discover what in their own worldview might be in need of a tune up or complete overhaul. What I tell my students is that if I challenge their notions of what is “right, true, and good,” and they still cling to those ideas, then those notions will only be strengthened in the crucible of honest examination, but if not, then it might be high time to start thinking for themselves.
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