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Are there any questions?

By William AikenWilliam Aiken is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Lowell in Lowell, Massachusetts. / October 19, 1982

Looking at my 11:30 class in English Composition and Literature one would think there was a great chance there to awake the dead. The faces are sallow, the eyes have no light in them. There is a kind of misery flowing around at head level. Waiting to surface in every mind is a whole series of protests: ''Why do we have to do this? What good is a poem or a story? What can this stuff possibly do for me?'' As long as these questions remain unanswered, no light will come into those eyes.

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They are good questions, after all. So good that teachers tend to shy away from answering them. They are basically metaphysical questions, asking (without quite asking) about one's purpose in life, about values conferred by the imagination, about first principles. I have found that the way to answer these questions is not from a height, but right down in the classroom trenches, where the questions have a violent life of their own, bringing the whole world under suspicion. It's not enough to shrug one's shoulders at such ignorance, or to say ''people have loved poems and stories from the dawn of civilization,'' or to step out on a tempting plank of sarcasm, from which teaching plunges to its death. The issue must be confronted in another way.

It is true that reading a poem or story may not help students get a good job. Literature does not instill that kind of knowledge. And in a very real sense there are more immediate, more practical, more pleasurable, and even more ultimate concerns than reading a poem or story. On the other hand, we live in a human world, where the immediate, the practical, the pleasurable, and even the ultimate are not always apt.

After about two weeks of glum faces, low marks, and folded hands one senses that the question these students would really like answered is not ''How will this help to establish me in the world?'' but ''How do people make good lives for themselves?'' They may not be ready for a systematic answer to the question, but they would like at least a few clues, and one notices that every time class discussion descends to this rather poignant level an attentive hush spreads across the room.

The thing is that stories and poems are full of just such clues. What students seem not to realize is that most of their lives will be spent interacting with other people, not just during times of recreation, but at work and at home as well. And running through the heart of every poem and story is a stream of human interaction. The plots of most stories deal not with fires and thefts and daring escapades but with changes in human relationships: from suspicion to trust, from enmity to friendship, from calculation to candor. Readers can chart the course and judge the result of these changes by paying attention to the characters. Likewise, a poem tests the reader's capacity to identify imaginatively with the speaker behind the poem. In order to catch the quality of poems one must feel like a little girl sent all alone to draw water, or like a boy gazing raptly at a horse, or like an old man whose emotions still throb like noontide. If we can do this, poetry can extend our understanding.

Later in life students will be faced with the most pressing human problems, both in business and in their families. If they cannot sense what is happening to fictional people, young and old, or if they cannot see anything from a point of view other than their own, they will suffer in real life for that ignorance. Poems and stories wear away such ignorance. They raise us a little beyond ourselves, so that we can see others more clearly. They help prevent us from failing at the human.

Many of the students I have seen in college have been fooled many times. What they had thought were good intentions often turned out to be self-serving. They are wary now of any easy juggling with ideas about beauty and truth, right and wrong. They have been burned. It is necessary with them to go back continuously to first principles. ''How do people make good lives for themselves?''

Although details may vary, we finally come to understand that the main movement in tragedy or in any unhappy story is away from people and toward isolation, and the movement in a happy story is toward identity of aim and community of feeling. As an ancient writer has it: ''It is certain no man lives to himself, and certainly none of us die to ourselves.'' Making us aware of this truth is the continuous emphasis of lasting literature.