Books: Feeling ‘in Cahoots': Of Students and Stories

February 22, 1989 8 min read

In his new book, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, the psychiatrist and educator Robert Coles describes experiences from his personal and professional life illustrating the power of literature to shape readers’ imagination and moral growth.

Dr. Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University, has written extensively about the moral, social, and political development of children. Here he reflects on conversations with students and other teachers about the influence of stories:

Those who teach literature have [the following] task: to engage a student’s growing intelligence and any number of tempestuous emotions with the line of a story in such a way that the reader’s imagination gets absorbed into the novelist’s.

My wife [a teacher] would eventually hear Linda [a student] describe such an achievement:

“With a novel, if the teacher holds you back and makes sure you take things slowly and get your head connected to what you’re reading, then the story becomes yours.”

“No, I don’t mean ‘your story'; I mean you have imagined what those people look like, and how they speak the words in the book, and how they move around, and so you and the writer are in cahoots.”

A testimony of experienced collaboration, with a teacher as intermediary; a love encouraged by someone whose job it is, actually, to do just that.

It is astonishing how young Americans in the late 1980’s, some from ''culturally disadvantaged” homes, can take to a novel such as Silas Marner--which is all too often written off as belonging to an old-fashioned high-school curriculum.

The old man Silas, so readily regarded as a hermit and a miser, is, of course, a victim of fate, of chance and circumstance. The novel treats of his moral and spiritual transformation while exploring the hypocrisies and duplicities that his society has learned to ignore. It is refreshing and exhilarating to see young men and women in a ghetto high school feel “in cahoots” with Silas, feel his isolation, his bad luck, and react with anger at the wrongs done him.

It can be instructive, also, to witness George Eliot’s shrewd social knowledge being taken to heart--her capacity to size up the various classes, give narrative life to their habits, their preferences, their distinct experiences. In ghetto high schools or in private schools that cater, mostly, to rather privileged families, many novels of the 19th and 20th centuries can elicit a broad range of empathic responses. ...

George Eliot’s town of Raveloe, Mark Twain’s Mississippi River town, Willa Cather’s town of Black Hawk on the Nebraska4prairie--these are hardly places that seem suited for today’s young folk. They are towns that belong to books not usually judged “relevant.”

Moreover, Huckleberry Finn has stirred its fair share of controversy, even though my wife’s black students have not been offended by the portrait of Jim. Quite the contrary: They see his moral superiority to the men and women who inhabit the river towns.

And they identify with Silas Marner, right off, and move easily from comments about the rich village squire Cass and his son Dunston, a thief and a liar, to more general comments about aspects of the social order to which their families have belonged.

What happens, wondrously, is the kind of moral communion that Linda described: A writer’s scrutinizing and suggestive images catch hold of a reader’s impressionable, yielding sensibility, and thus they become “in cahoots.”

Once in a while, a bold student dares really immerse himself or herself in a particular novel or short story, dares give a literary creation a new, private lease on life. One such student of mine, George, vividly described his preoccupation with Hardy’s Jude; with Walker Percy’s Binx; with the young James Agee, who visited Alabama in 1936; with the young Orwell, who went “down and out” in two European capital cities during the late 1920’s; ... with Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man,” whose travels and encounters evoke a people’s suffering and exile but also its enormous vitality. ...

George was especially taken with Ralph Ellison’s protagonist, even though George was white. I was yet again reminded how wonderfully contagious a novel’s moral energy can be, at least once in a while.

As George put it to me, softly but with obvious intensity of feeling: “I feel I’m ‘invisible’ as I watch life here go on--or I feel I’m Jude, as confused as he was, staring at people but not part of the world he wants with all his heart to join.”

At that point, the young man broke off--embarrassed, obviously, by what seemed to be a self-pitying turn in his line of expressed thought.

Who was he, George then asked with evident feeling, to “identify” with Ellison’s hero, with Hardy’s, or for that matter with the young Agee and Orwell? He had lived a lucky, privileged, protected life. ...

On the other hand, George couldn’t help but insist, the men and women he met in those books had become part of his life. He had pictures of them in his mind. Their words came to him at times. He remembered those words; perhaps he would ultimately forget them. But he was not at all sure that the “people” (as he called them) would ever vanish. ...

That student, George, was a member of a section in my course taught by Elaine, a young woman who was especially drawn to the Tillie Olsen stories. Elaine taught “I Stand Here Ironing” with special conviction and passion.

She emphasized the story’s moral introspection: the mother’s taking stock of life as it has been lived by herself and her daughter. Elaine shared some of her own family’s history with the class. Her grandmother and her mother were poor Irish women who had worked long and hard, hoping that their exertions would enable their children to have at least a slightly better chance at securing a reasonably comfortable life.

Her personal memories sparked memories in the students--though she kept returning to the text as the mainstay.

“There must be a balance,” Elaine once reminded me, and then spelled out its nature: “The stories are emotionally powerful and have a strong effect on the students. They tell me so. When they come to class, I want to encourage them to talk directly and without fear or shame about their response to what they read.”

“But I want us to make sure the responses are to the text. Sure, the mind wanders, and to some extent that’s all right. But at a certain point, as they talk, I make connections to what we’ve been reading: That’s the teacher’s job.”

“The students are usually grateful. They want to digress, but they want to be brought back home, also. Otherwise they feel lost--too much on their own.”

She laughed about the imagery, but I had visited her class repeatedly and was impressed with how hard she worked to cover the text, so to speak, while also encouraging the students to let their own experiences connect with those evoked by an author. Her students would remember her teaching.

Over time, I began to learn from the students that constructing a good reading list involves not so much matching student interest with author’s subject matter (though there is no reason to ignore the pleasures such a correspondence can offer) as considering the degree of moral engagement a particular text seems able to make with any number of readers.

“This novel won’t let go of me,” a college freshman said to me about Invisible Man--and the student was white and from a wealthy, powerful family. Moreover, he was at pains to let me know that he hadn’t ever been especially interested in the racial question of the United States and that a reading of the Ellison novel had not at first pushed him in such a direction.

What, then, did he make of the novel, and what are we entitled, as his critics or as critics of the novel he has read, to make of his response?

In his papers and in his contributions to the class discussions, he made clear what Ellison had set in motion--a new awareness of himself as “ignorant” more than “prejudiced.”

He kept pointing to the irony that for years he had traveled to every continent, including a brief stop in Antarctica, yet never went near Harlem, less than 50 miles from his parents’ Connecticut home. Such an irony is, of course, not all that singular in American life.

But this student did something more with the Ellison novel: He worked himself into it, connected himself to the central character in such a way that some of Ellison’s “invisibility” became for an eminently privileged youth of 18 a means of self-recognition: “My parents are so damn busy with their lives that they usually want us out of the way, and the longer the better.” ...

“When I was finishing Invisible Man, I remembered a time long ago. ... I heard [my parents] say they were going on a vacation, and I heard my dad say something that meant he might worry about us, and then I heard my mother say, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ ... I think we were invisible to her--out of her mind a lot of the time.” ...

Ellison’s novel brought him an insight: He had learned not to notice because he himself had been persistently ignored. With a renewed awareness, he could stop and think not only about America’s racial problems but his personal ones as well.

The joining of the two in his mind turned out to have consequences not easy to imagine: a real and tenacious concern for ghetto children, an active college life of volunteer teaching in a school attended only by black children.

When I heard, one day, that this young man, as a senior, had read Invisible Man a second time and even brought it home and asked his parents to read it, I was reminded yet again that a compelling narrative, offering a storyteller’s moral imagination vigorously at work, can enable any of us to learn by example, to take to heart what is, really, a gift of grace.

From The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination by Robert Coles, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Copyright 1989 by Robert Coles. Reprinted by permission.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books: Feeling ‘in Cahoots': Of Students and Stories