Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Emperor is Naked - Academic World

Wow, another new blog topic! The Academic World.

Hoo boy. 

For those of you who don't know, I'm a teacher. Specifically, a University professor of English. It's a day job that I absolutely love and it's something that I feel can really make a difference in people's lives. Every year I get students who say they absolutely hate English, but they leave my class loving it because I make it fun with hilarious stories, Veggie Tales, Top Gear, movies, video games, and interesting challenges. 

Plus, it's a great way to promote my stories. I use my flash fiction and short stories in lessons every year. My flash fiction horror story "Shush" is a particular favorite. I'll share it with you guys around Halloween. XD 

Since I'm a University professor, I'm smack dab in the middle of the academic world. I've done research, submitted papers, presented at academic conferences, and wrote a Master's thesis looking at the "Foreign Other" in three novels - Jurassic Park, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Frankenstein - in an effort to show that science fiction emerged from gothic literature, since the two genres share a lot of themes and agendas.

Just a small sampling of the myriad of sources I had for that thesis. Yes, you do see a Halo book embedded in there.

Wow, that was the most academic thing I've ever said here. I promise not to bore you with that academic nonsense too much. 

Anyways, since I spent years on the academic side of writing and analyzing, I'll admit... I've become a bit bitter. Academics tend to overanalyze things and I've met many of them that were simply out of touch with reality. A lot of academic driven writing is the same way. 

Let me show you what I mean.

When I was young, before high school, I loved reading. Mom homeschooled us, so we had a lot of spare time for reading. I ate books up like cheese crackers.

Then I got to high school. By that point, my father had passed away and Mom was going back to school to get a job to support us. We didn't have the time or the ability to homeschool for high school, so I went to a public high school. 

Within the first year, I started losing my love of reading. 

When I was reading on my own, I read a lot of fantasy, sci fi, and YA books. Generally books that are fun, clean, and dramatic. 

When I read books for school, I had to read books like The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Flies, and The Stranger. Books with lots of symbolism, sex, violence, unredeemable characters, and often no morals. And we were expected to read and analyze and write papers and ENJOY the books, because they were "important literary examples." 

But why are all the "important literary examples" riddled with sex, drugs, rape, violence, and all the nonsense we already see in the news every day? 

It seems like "good" literary examples would rather talk about the problems with a vice rather than the goodness of a virtue. 

Look at Harry Potter. Yes, there is death, destruction, hate, racism, and all kind of dark themes. But the central characters display good, moral virtues, so that becomes the central theme of the story.

Now let's look at The Great Gatsby. There's a lot of those dark themes mixed in there, as well as classism and sex. But there are no redeemable characters in Gatsby. All of the characters, even the dull narrator, are driven by vices, not virtues.

Gatsby, suspected of getting his vast amounts of money through illegal means, wants Daisy, a married woman, and she does consent to a degree (adultery). Tom is extremely violent and abusive toward Daisy and Gatsby, he's having an affair, and then he murders and covers it up. Even Nick has his issues. He's so passive that he basically just lets everyone do their thing and watches them ruin their lives. 

Yes, I know, we need flawed characters to have really great story telling. But Harry is flawed too. He gets angry and acts stupidly. He gets mad at his friends and doesn't know how to handle his parents death. But he RISES ABOVE these flaws and his virtues, not his vices, define who he is. In Gatsby, all the characters are defined by vices, not virtues. 

Much of the same is true in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Frankenstein, The Lord of the Flies, The Stranger, and many other stories we're supposed to read in high school and as academics. 

Why is this? Why do we find people defined by vices rather than virtues more interesting in the Academic World? 

I've developed a theory. It's called the Emperor is Naked theory. 

You should all know the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. 

No, not this guy...

(Image Via disney.wikia.com)
The story of the Emperor's New Clothes is very simple. A king who loves clothes is visited by two tailors, claiming that they can make the most amazing clothes in the world. They ask for gold and jewels and silk and all kinds of expensive material to put into this outfit, which the king happily gives. 

But when the king sees the work in progress, there's nothing there. But the tailors say there is. Their excuse? "Only smart people can see this wonderful outfit!"

So the king, his advisers, and his subjects all pretend to see the clothing. Who wants to be called stupid because you can't see the gorgeous clothing? 

Eventually the "outfit" is complete. The king announces that only smart people can see this outfit and he parades down the street butt naked, thinking he's wearing the clothes. No one says any different because no one wants to be called dumb. 

But as he goes down the parade, a child runs out, points to the king, and shouts "The Emperor is naked!" Suddenly everyone realizes they've been fooled and there ARE no magical clothes. Meanwhile the "tailors" escape with all the expensive material they've been given.

In other words, we pretend something is amazing and literary and WORTH something because we don't want to be called stupid. The Great Gatsby, in my opinion, is a Naked Emperor. We talk about how wonderful a book it is, but really, we just don't want to look stupid in the eyes of the academic world or in the World of Analysis.

Now before everyone freaks out and attacks me for bashing their favorite literary book, hear me out. Yes, we can learn things from these books. Yes, you can learn analysis and critical thinking from The Great Gatsby.

But can't you learn a lot of things from Harry Potter too? Why do we put Gatsby on a high pedestal as academics, but shun Harry Potter because it's "young adult" and "genre fiction" and "not literary"?

What's a better way to learn morals, critical thinking, symbolism, and how to live - by reading books on the problems of vices, or reading books about the blessings of virtues?

Recently my church has been talking about a well known phrase. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But the phrase didn't used to be like that. It used to be "Don't do to others as you don't want them to do to you." But Jesus turned it around. He changed it from the absence of a vice to the presence of a virtue.

The absence of a vice is not the same thing as the presence of a virtue. Likewise, the problems of a vice is not the same thing as the blessings of a virtue. You don't learn the same things in both cases.

So yes, I sound bitter. I sound cranky. But after all my time in the academic world of sex, drugs, violence, rape, and other nasty vices taking center stage, you can't blame me.

What do you guys think? Are there books that you'd consider Naked Emperors? Are there any stories you've had to read where you just wondered why we considered them "high literature"? Do you disagree with me? Leave a comment below! 

4 comments:

  1. I can tell your Internet fast is doing you good, because your blog posts have gotten really pithy. The virtues vs vices thing is brilliant. It's making me rethink my WIP.

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    1. Oooo, I wanna see how it's making you rethink the WIP. XD

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  2. Such a good post, Rachel! I love your analogy with the Emperor's New Clothes.

    My mom didn't make us read a lot of those "classics", but I did have to read "Gone with the Wind" for school once. Blahhhh...such a petty, miserable, bitter, scheming heroine. I will never understand why that book is so popular. People treating other people badly and pursuing their selfish goals above all else does not good literature make...

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    1. Wow, I had no idea that Gone with the Wind was a Naked Emperor. o_0 It's not one I would have pegged for that.

      I'm glad I'm not the only one who agrees with this idea. XD Now if only I could convince the academics!

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