By Jeanne Petrolle

Education as a Matter of Life and Death

Like many Bible stories, the book of Daniel showcases the power of prophets to stand against the power of tyrants. As a literature professor, I delight in the moments when the author of Daniel connects the study of literature to the exiled men’s power to survive human tyranny and affirms the importance of interpretive skill in surviving systems of domination. The story returns me to the deepest reasons we study the humanities: to build our powers of interpretation and insight, so we can cultivate the moral clarity and mental strength to stand against tyrants and systems of oppression.

Daniel 1:17 & 20 describes Daniel and his compatriots as gifted in literature and interpretation: 

“God gave them learning and skill in all letters and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.... And in every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his entire kingdom.” (Oxford New Revised Standard Version) 

I’m delighted at the narrative’s suggestion that God cares about literature. I enjoy thinking that when God distributes gifts, some people get the ability to understand literature. That gift does not top the list of American marketable skills, but Daniel insists that interpretation matters. All educators — and perhaps humanities teachers especially — prepare students to interpret the world around them.

• • •

Interpretation, of course, doesn’t stop at literature. By learning to interpret texts, one learns to interpret events--both political and personal. Naomi Klein illustrates this in ​The Shock Doctrine​, when she analyzes “disaster capitalism,” the use of corporate and government power in tandem to exploit opportunities created by traumatic shock. She interprets the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when rather than help rebuild neighborhoods inhabited by poor black and brown people, the federal government gave no-bid contracts to corporations that wanted the land for profitable developments.

Klein also gives examples of communities that figured out how to stand against this power and protect their livelihoods and homes. She attributes their ingenuity and effectiveness to interpretive skill. Using the September 11, 2001 attacks as a case in point, she explains how interpretation skills enable people to stand against predatory corporate or government power. 

“The attacks were initially,” Klein explains, “pure event, raw reality, unprocessed by story, narrative, or anything that could bridge the gap between reality and understanding. Without a story, we are, as many of us were after September 11, intensely vulnerable to those people who are ready to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends. As soon as we have a new narrative that offers a perspective on the shocking events, we become reoriented and the world begins to make sense once again.” (579-580) We need a story — an interpretation — to understand shocking events. We need understanding to exercise agency.

• • •

On March 12, 2020, as happened on campuses everywhere, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted my “Bible as Literature” class. Rather than moving immediately to online learning, my institution enacted a “three-week pause,” giving everyone time to secure their safety and adjust. Faculty reached out to their scattered students to offer reassurance and direction. Because we had read the Genesis flood story together, and because I had taught my students allegorical interpretation, I offered them that narrative as a framework for experiencing the disruption. Lightheartedly, since I was addressing atheists and theists alike, I said, “Since we have read the story of Noah, you know exactly what to do when a flood (or pandemic, or other overwhelming life event) hits: gather your supplies and go into your ark with your loved ones, and shelter in place until the deluge passes. After about forty days, check whether it’s safe to come out (use the CDC guidelines rather than a dove) and wait for the all-clear. When you get to leave the ark, something new and beautiful will be getting underway.                    

I confess: that’s an easier story to tell at the beginning of any forty days. By Day 60 of our stay-at-home order, with the economy in freefall, and no vaccine, effective treatment, or widespread testing in sight, it had become harder to imagine a “bow in the clouds,” or a promising new creation. Faith for me, though, is about trusting the story, believing without seeing that the creation-destruction-new creation pattern that shapes biblical literature will also shape history.

• • •

After the shutdown, our pre-pandemic syllabus set Zora Neale Hurston’s ​Their Eyes Were Watching God​ before my “Bible as Literature” students. A Harlem Renaissance love — and flood — story of biblical proportions, the novel plunged us into Zoom conversation about disaster, racism, and recovery. “Is there a creation-destruction-new creation pattern in this novel?” I asked. “Kind of,” one student said. There is creation and destruction, but the new creation is flawed. Janie is new, but the world after the flood is racist. It’s still dangerous for black people, so it’s not very new.” “The novel doesn’t focus much on racism before the flood narrative,” another student added, “but the flood really brings out the racism.” “Look what happens when they try to climb out of the water onto the bridge at Six Mile Bend,” someone observed: “They can’t climb the bridge because too many white people are already there.” 

Another student catalyzed the interpretive moment that makes teaching worthwhile: “That’s like what’s happening with the pandemic and stay-at-home order. It affects people and communities unevenly. An NPR article said most of the workers who can stay at home are white and more of the workers who can’t are black. Also, proportionally, more black and brown people than white people die of COVID-19. Just like more black women than white women die of breast cancer."

• • •

Dozens of teachers and dozens of classes equipped these students to interpret the Bible, the novel, and our current events. This power to understand and interpret stories and events is the first step in mobilizing agency. Like Daniel and his fellow survivors, our students must navigate and survive formidable systems of oppression. The interpretive skills we cultivate have practical value: they help us see patterns, generate insight, cultivate moral clarity. When we understand how social inequalities impact who does and doesn’t survive disaster, we can act to facilitate change. Interpretation power is survival power. I hold that firmly in mind as the pandemic presents obstacles to education, distancing teachers and students. Whatever technical, institutional, and spiritual obstacles arise, delivering education is actually a matter of life and death. 

Photo by Matt Moloney from StockSnap.

About the Author

Jeanne Petrolle holds a PhD in Literature from the University of Illinois. She is the author of Religion without Belief: Contemporary Allegory and the Search for Postmodern Faith and Dancing with Ophelia: Reconnecting Madness, Creativity, and Love. She has published essays about literature, religion, and culture in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Film Quarterly, Image: A Journal of Art and Religion,Issues in Integrative Studies, and Hektoen International Journal. An Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago, she lives with her husband and son in the Chicago area.


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