Teaching `lit' as moral issues

GOOD literature has always been a way to raise social and moral questions in the classroom indirectly. But it can also be a powerful direct method, says Susan Resneck Parr. Ten years ago, Dr. Parr stopped teaching literature in a ``straight'' manner - through plot, symbol, character - and focused exclusively on teaching the moral dilemmas in novels and plays. Parr, academic dean at the University of Tulsa (Okla.), has found that students have not been exposed to moral reasoning. She has her students read Tennessee Williams's American classic ``A Streetcar Named Desire.'' Then she asks them to write an in-class essay about the play's ending - when the aggressive Stanley Kowalski rapes his emotionally unstable sister-in-law, Blanche, while his wife, Stella, is in the hospital having their child. Stanley denies the rape, and Stella commits Blanche to a mental institution, telling her neighbor, ``I couldn't believe Blanche's story and go on living with Stanley.'' In the original play (unlike the popular movie), Stella goes on living with him.

How, Parr wants to know, would her students answer Stella's own question: ``Did I do the right thing?''

At first, students don't make distinctions between moral thinking and expediency, Parr says. ``Their answers are based on what's easiest for Stella - on what's most convenient and personally satisfying.'' One wrote: ``I think Stella did the right thing. She had to think about her life, her marriage, and her new baby, and how Blanche might affect that life.'' Another said: ``I think their peace of mind justifies Stella's decision as right.''

But committing Blanche to an asylum doesn't confront the evils in the play, or its moral complexities, Parr says. So students must identify what contributes to the moral tension in ``Streetcar'': the loss of innocence, the force of animality, sexual roles, delusion, and the particular context of life in the deep South.

Parr makes such questions the sustaining character of every literary work students read: Can conformity be a morally charged issue? Yossarian in Joseph Heller's ``Catch-22,'' for example, shows that somebody has to stand up and say ``no'' to the cycle of evil in the world. How courageous do students think they are?

Parr finds her students ``enormously responsive'' once they get into such issues. ``What had initially appeared to be moral callousness, in reality had been unreflectiveness,'' she says, adding that by the time they leave, many students find that their own framework of thinking has changed for the better. -30-{et

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