Review: The Call to Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles Print E-mail

Call_Coles(San Diego Union-Tribune April 14, 1989)

I Am What I Read

One handout I have routinely given students in literature classes I teach at San Diego City College ends its discussion about searching for the moral ideas in fiction with this ambiguous phrase: "and, for once, be happy that you're lost."

Quite a few resist the assignment. They fear that being lost while reading novels may mean gaps will appear, down the road, in their cultural literacy.

Test us, they say, on the elements of literature—like personification and catharsis, synecdoche and the unreliable narrator. Why boggle our minds with what are, at best, relative moral judgments?

Because, I say, people in positions of influence (I'm careful not to say power) must be responsible. In college, by grappling with ethical questions, we the faculty prepare people—citizens!—to make informed, wise decisions.

Or, if I want to be cynical, I say, Because I'm the teacher. Both reasons invariably fall on more than a few empty desks.

Some students only want to find the "right" (i.e. my) interpretation of a story. (Occasionally a student will say, "I did poorly because I didn't know what you wanted me to say.") I fear students who no longer question authority, but wish nothing more than to squeak out a degree and have authority. I do have undergrads who willingly swim the moral waters, and they give me heart.

As does Robert Coles, who, in The Call of Stories, reminds us that teachers can stimulate the moral imagination with literature—it just takes the right books, the right questions, and patience, in excelsis. At Harvard, where he teaches pre-professional courses in the departments of law, medicine, business and education and still practices in his main field, child psychiatry, Coles uses literature to define the moral life and to help students confront their fears and ignorance and excitement about what is right, what is meaningful.

(I encountered a marvelous instance of moral insight recently. A student in my class said during our discussion of a story from Hemingway's "In Our Time," "I didn't really get the meaning until I sat there for 20 minutes and thought about what I'd read. Then I saw it." Sit and deliver.)

John Gardner, in On Moral Fiction (1978), argued persuasively that novelists could express morality.

Curiously, it turns out, he and Coles agree on many practitioners: Tolstoy, Chekhov, George Eliot, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever.

I would add, from my experience, Willa Cather, James Baldwin and Carol Bly. These writers—although not necessarily moral themselves and certainly not moralists—care about the decisions their characters make.

They give characters time and the inclination to decide, to judge their actions themselves or be judged via the actions of others. (Huck Finn's decision to harbor Jim, a runaway slave, is a moral one, although Twain lets Huck go no further with it, as the novel becomes more a parody than a discovery of slavery's evil.) Moral writers care that the consequences of a character's behavior end not with the story but with us, that our sensitivity, made permeable by the story, obliges us to live better.

Put differently, an ethical novelist, in Wayne Booth's perfect phrase, "cares a great deal of what will become of me as I read." Coles began his education in morality and literature with his parents reading aloud to him as a child from the best English novelists—Hardy, Dickens, Eliot. Then, as a medical intern, boasting of the latest techniques in the 1950s Freudian analysis, Coles was rerouted, providentially, by a Dr. Ludwig, who told him that his diagnosis erred because Coles saw his patients as "theoretical constructs."

Ludwig's advice: Quit coaxing information from them.

Rather, let patients tell their stories.

"Hearing themselves teach you, through their narration, the patients will learn the lessons a good instructor learns only when he becomes a willing student, eager to be taught." Recalling another internship with the poet-doctor, William Carlos Williams, and his success with understanding patients who also "spoke their peace," Coles decided to make personal conversations with literature students his field work.

He would "engage a student's growing intelligence and any number of tempestuous emotions with the one of a story in such a way that the reader's imagination gets absorbed into the novelist's."

Central to The Call of Stories are these fascinating student confessions, taped from talks held, one-on-one, in Coles' office hours.

Students ramble on tellingly, making discoveries, crying Eureka!, alarming themselves with confidence and insight they didn't know they possessed. A summation by "Gordon" about how characters and readers exist, interchangeable, seemed representative of Coles' theme.

"They're people for me. Nick Carraway or Jack Burden, they really speak to me—there's a lot of me in them, or vice versa. I don't know how to put it, but they're voices, and they help me make choices. I hope when I decide 'the big ones' they'll be in there pitching."

It may be hard for some teachers who have four to six classes with more than 25 students in each to teach moral imagination.

Using Coles' experience as a guide, though, perhaps we can provoke them to use their consciences to guide their literary instruction.