Lyell Asher, “Your Students Crave Moral Simplicity. Resist.”


You may have seen this essay in The American Scholar or in the Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt (full essay is here):

I didn’t like bewilderment when I was in college, and my students don’t either. Their lives are chaotic enough without any help from books. So they’re just as inclined as I was to bypass complication as a way of preserving the clarity of their judgments, which is precisely what Tolstoy’s characters do [in Anna Karenina]. Anna needs to construe her husband as an unfeeling machine in order to withstand her own guilt, just as her husband needs to construe Anna as a thoroughly depraved woman so as to sharpen his own hatred. It’s one of the book’s many indelible patterns: The easiest way to streamline your feelings is to simplify the people who provoke them.

A college ought to be the ideal place to help students learn to resist such simplifications — to resist them not just inside the classroom, in the books they read, but outside in the lives they lead. Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.


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