Stories Are Makeshift Things

Sep 17, 2013

Yesterday we posted an article by one Mr. Andrew Kern in which the author attacks progressive education for the way it teaches children to read. He claims that "...when we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas." And then this: 

"... To read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap."

Meanwhile, I've been reading Ron Hansen's book A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction where I came across this nugget, from author Richard Ford: 

"Stories and novels . . . are makeshift things. They originate in strong, disorderly impulses; are supplied by random accumulations of life-in-words; and proceed in their creation by mischance, faulty memory, distorted understanding, weariness, deceit of almost every imaginable kind, by luck and by the stresses of increasingly inadequate vocabulary and wandering imagination–with the result often being a straining, barely containable object held in fierce and sometimes inefficient control. . . And for every writer it's different; different means and expectations, different protocols under which a story accumulates, different temperaments and lingo about how to do it–different work in every way."

This is why progressive education fails to teach reading (and, in fact, writing) well. It's far too concerned with the science of language, with the parts and the elements and the things you can count and quantify and measure. It's so concerned with those things that there's no room left for soul. In reflectin on Mr. Ford's above-quoted comments, Hansen writes this: 

". . . It's far easier to say what a story is not than to say what a story is. True stories are no anecdotes, sketches, character studies, or mood pieces. They are not psychology or sociology or history or biography, though they may adapt elements of all those form to create their effects. Stories are not about theories or themes, though our high school practice of talking about books in this way often gives people the false impression that serious writers first of all have a point they're trying to prove. What stories try to present is generally sensory . . ."

Indeed, the more scientific our approach to literature becomes the less human it is. The more we focus on the science of a work of literature–or of literature itself–the less we can focus on what the work does to and for and within us. As a great poet put it, we "murder to dissect". 

Once more from Mr. Hansen: 

"John Gardner wrote that 'The great artist . . . is the [writer] who sees more connections between things than [ordinary people] can see.' I finally think our need for stories is our need to find those connections, and to have confirmed for us the theology we hold secret in our heart, that even the least of us are necessary to the great universal plot in ways we hadn't imagined."

Story can change the world, but not if we tear it apart and rip it up and make it something it isn't. 

David Kern

David Kern

David is director of our multimedia initiatives (podcast host, web-content manager, magazine editor, etc). He often writes about film, television, books, and other culture-related topics, and has been published by Christ and Pop Culture, Think Christian, Relevant, and elsewhere.  David and his wife, Bethany, have three young boys and they live in Concord, NC. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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