It wasn’t till my senior year of high school that I realized what it all meant to me. There are few things in life that can make my heart skip a beat or cause tears to roll down my cheeks. But sitting in that small, dark room with the large, white projector screen reflecting light back into my eyes, it finally all made sense. As my seminary teacher paused to regain his composure, my uncontrollable silent tears continued to drip as he resumed the heart-breaking story of Denny and Wendy Mack. Wendy, who was pregnant with their fourth child, is now deceased as well as her sweet child. She unfortunately left her husband alone in this world to care for their remaining three small children and the weight of daily life that came with it. To keep his love for Wendy alive, Denny continues to update their family blog as he remembers their final conversation, and where his days take him as life refuses to pause.
“There was nothing more difficult for me than thinking about how to tell my kids… Wendy’s kids, that their mommy was not coming home again. I replayed it over and over in my mind and it never went well. I even tried to break it up a bit by telling them that the baby was sick and they were at the hospital and that we needed to go see the baby. This was yesterday… After they had a chance to meet Maylee, I decided we needed to talk. As we were lead down the hall by the attending nurse, my Kenna started asking about mommy. I just told her she was somewhere else… I wasn’t about to have this “well rehearsed” talk out in the hall. I was in front of her walking so she couldn’t see her dad break. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that the nurse had lost control a little also. He was very professional and compassionate, but I couldn’t help but think how helpless I would feel in his shoes too. I learned later that he had been married a few years longer than me and had 3 kids that were all 1 year ahead of mine. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the tears back either.”
That was ‘the point’. It was the point of understanding, of realization, of horribly broken heartache that made my eyes open to the literate arts. After reading about Denny and Wendy Mack’s final moments together I realized that this is what Richard Miller, author of The Dark Night of the Soul, was trying to explain to us. With the ever looming question “What are the literate arts good for?” I feel I have found somewhat of an answer. Of course – this answer will be different for everyone. Given life and the experiences dealt to us I don’t feel that anyone could sufficiently answer such an intense question. I’m left with this feeling of inadequacy; “How can I ever play the omniscient, the all-knowing, when I don’t know anything?” stated Miller (10). Nonetheless, I attempt to act as such.
One may answer the question with obvious statements. Asking the question again, “What are the literate arts good for?” these answers slowly start to become apparent. Well, they help better us. It amplifies our self worth. If you better yourself, you can move ahead and around the competition. You can be a more overall successful person, which will help you live a better life. However, now we are left asking ourselves, “What is a good life?” Since we have posed yet another question, others may argue the answer would better be “The literate arts provide a personal experience”, or in other words, a history. They leave a record of our times. In the past this was done by storytelling, but as we know from the childish game “telephone”, where a phrase is whispered from person to person, the words are often manipulated and the original phrase is lost. By writing down our history we cultivate an identity. It shows us a possibility for existence. Finally, a third answer may be, “The literate arts are good for personal expression”. This can be taken two directions. First, the personal expression may be used to create an alienation or aloneness. This provides a new sense of individualism. The second may be to connect with people. It can help us understand others. It can be used as a motivation or empathy. It can create a new human community, or help us be a part of an already existing community.
Working from the text, Arts of the Contact Zone, by Mary Louise Pratt we are introduced to the concept and idea of a community versus a contact zone. Humans have a natural desire to connect and be close. In doing so, they form a community – a place to see eye to eye and level out on a personal level. Pratt says “Communities are distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (4). Even if a community thrives on one giant contact zone (a place of diversity in opinions, religion, level of education, etc), it is a place where style can be cultivated and imagined. This can provide many with the opportunity to find their style within reading and writing. Consider a book club or a poetry slam team; people who have come together to create a literate community while also incorporating their own style – a contact zone. Every book and every person will be different; they speak differently to each individual.
Pratt would say that the literate arts are good for the contact zones. They help highlight individuality and our understanding/access to other cultures. However, this is simply one author’s opinion. This is a subject that needs to be viewed from multiple angles. Paulo Freire, author of The Banking Concept of Education, shares his opinions of the subject.
The banking method is viewed as an unforgivable sin in the eyes of Freire. It is a system that consists of a teacher pouring thoughts, facts, and ideas into the minds of the students. It leaves no room for discussion; just a constant flow of information which the students often don’t know how to handle. Instead of this method, Freire argues in favor of a learning device he calls ‘problem-posing’. This allows students and teachers to be equal. All ask questions, all discover new things, and all find the answer. He favors this because the students know things. The students are able to stimulate a discussion without the teacher having to facilitate it; they’re able to learn from one another instead of strictly from the teacher. In the banking method, “The students are not called upon to know, but to memorize the contents narrated by the teacher” (263). This is why the problem-posing and literate arts are important. Ultimately: they complement each other. Each provides the student with the opportunity to speak and be heard. To be able to put words down on paper is an expression of knowledge – what Freire wants all students to have. Freire feels education is the most important thing in life. By working with the literate arts and the problem-posing method what you learn is given meaning. A lot of what Freire speaks of coincides with Pratt. The literate arts are a form of communication – communication is a key in human communities. He also expresses his feelings of the importance of history and how it provides a way to progress in life. Education is a modern day revolution – the only way to revise our history and make the future better.
That future is all Richard Rodriguez had eyes for. As he summarizes the course of his education in his essay, The Achievement of Desire, he recognizes the way he built a wall between his family life and his education. He intentionally created a contact zone. This essay, almost a personal memoir, is an example of why the literate arts are important in our daily lives. It is written from a personal point of view – such as a journal would be. His essay has become a history of what his education did to his family life; “Scholarship boy: good student, troubled son” (600). In those simple six words he summarizes his childhood and the struggles he dealt with as his education became more of a barrier instead of a tool that would make him happy. The more he learned, the less happy he became. He was losing touch with his family since they couldn’t carry on a conversation at the same level of intelligence. It was painting a picture in his mind that he couldn’t have the best of both worlds. He was feeling unstable; unable to find a balance.
It was confusing for me to see that the education Freire claimed so important was causing friction in Rodriguez’s life. At the same time, as I continued to read Rodriguez’s essay I was beginning to understand him. I was having the same heartaches as I did while reading the Mack family blog. Recognizing that these emotions can stem from two different authors reiterates to me that the literate arts are important; they have the ability to effect people. But why aren’t words just words? Why are the literate arts so important? Even more importantly, as I explore this question as a whole, I can’t help but ask myself “Why are the literate arts so important to me?” This theme of families being torn apart is awful to see in life; to experience it as words on a page that leap off in proportions never experienced before is unsettling. I first experienced the Mack family blog five months ago – the impressions it left on me feel as if they happened yesterday. As I dwell on the ultimate question, I reflect again back to the Mack family –
“We went into a private room and the three of them sat on the table in front of me. I stammered and struggled through explaining where mommy was. I told them that she was with Heavenly Father and would not be living with us anymore. My son got it. I crumbled as his face contorted into that hurt look that I had seen in my thoughts thousands of times in anticipation… Dallin has been the pillar of strength. He came in and put his arm around me and said ‘Daddy, I am sorry you lost your wife.’ What do you say to that? I just held him and said thank you, ‘I am sorry you lost your mommy, but we are in this together.’ ”
I’m afraid the way that Richard Miller asks his audience why the literate arts are important, is that he asks it in a way that causes people to think there is only one answer. I remind you that I strongly disagree with him. As I’ve scraped through all these various texts looking for that golden answer, I keep coming back to those general ideas; personal gain, history, and personal expression. Even more so, I’ve realized you can’t do one of those three things without doing the other two at the same time. The way Miller structured his essay left me feeling that everything we read and/or write is done so in vain. He states, “There will never again be a book that can credibly be labeled ‘great,’ not because outstanding books are no longer being produced, but because the world is now awash with writing that no one reads, with last year’s blockbusters ending up in the dump next to this year’s most insightful critiques.” This reiterates how tough it is in the writing world – not everyone hits it big just because they can write profoundly or in a way that people enjoy. A person should write for the joy of writing, not just simply to be heard.
It’s difficult to make you understand how I feel. There are so many thoughts swarming the channel that leads to my fingers – begging to be dictated on the page. What are the literate arts good for? In my life, they are good for everything. They are an outlet from this world of destruction we live in. I could not find a perfect, solid, wholesome answer to this question in the analytical texts of all those brilliant authors. All they did for me was pose question after question that left me with more confusion and loss of hope. But for whatever reason, when I read the personal and intimate thoughts of Denny Mack, a part of me grows. My understanding of human behavior changes as Denny makes it even clearer to me the importance of family and the time we have. We take so much for granted; Rodriquez showed this to me. We will always be faced with difficult situations; Pratt taught me this. We all see and apply things differently; I learned from Freire. Most of what we do goes unnoticed; pointed out Miller. Yet here we are, still reading and writing because as much as we’d like to find a concrete answer that tells why we behave the way that we do, we simply can’t – and we should all be satisfied with that. Find you the reason you love to read, or love to write, or simply stop them both altogether.