Reading Parallels: The Republic of Imagination and Our Declaration

republic of imagination

Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination closely examines three pieces of American fiction as a means for exploring the role literature plays in democratic societies. In sections that touch on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbit and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Nafisi argues that art and creativity are essential and explores the ways America has begun to lose touch with its imagination.

Nafisi’s writing seems solidly in its element when turning over sections of Huckleberry Finn, which is full of the most literary criticism, but takes on a markedly different, more political feel in the pages on Babbit. Though the established theme binds the chapters together, three distinct tones make each individual section stronger than the slightly disjointed feeling book.

As an educator, I was drawn to the discussion on Babbit, which expanded to cover the newly-minted Common Core Standards and their potential impact. Though I taught in one of the six states that has resisted taking on Common Core, there’s an undeniable movement in education toward constant drilling and data leaving teachers and students drained. The discussion shifts much further away from the central text than in the other sections, but Nafisi’s points are spot on.

“The ‘critical thinking’ that Common Core claims to wish to instill in our youth will not come from simply teaching them to decipher informational texts. Anyone, especially nowadays, can find information about almost anything in the world with a few keystrokes on Google, but not everyone will have the patience to place it in a relevant context or to be objective enough, responsible enough and passionate enough about the truth not to mind what its discovery might mean for their beliefs or short-term benefits.”

our declaration

After finishing The Republic of Imagination, I picked up Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which is a deep dive into the text of the document meant for both “the sophisticate and the novice; the frequent and the occasional reader; the history buff and the self-help seeker; the lover of democracy whether at home or abroad.” After tracing the basic history of the Declaration, Allen breaks the text down to its most basic sentences and spends pages dissecting the trajectory of each. The goals of Our Declaration are clear and Allen’s conversational tone brings the depth of the Declaration’s philosophy to light in an accessible way.

At the center of Allen’s book is the ability to create logical arguments by chaining together complete phrases from the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the addition of a single period in one widely distributed version of the document disrupts one of those phrases and completely changes the meaning of the text. A sound Google search, like that Azar Nafisi alludes to, leads many of us to the version with stray punctuation and causes regular misreading. More than likely, in a Common Core-guided world, Allen’s beautiful vision of the Declaration would be set aside for fact-filled memorization and the core of one of our most stunning documents would be lost.

 

*I received a copy of The Republic of Imagination from the publisher for review consideration.
  • Interesting post, Shannon. Yes, as a parent and former school board member, I’ve been concerned about the Common Core’s strong emphasis on informational text . . . Certainly learning to understand informational text is important, but I’ve felt it has resulted in less time for literature, creative writing, and deeper analysis in the classroom.

    • Informational text is super important, but Common Core tackles it wrong. If students were expected to dig into it the way Danielle Allen looks at the Declaration of Independence it would be amazing how much they learn…sadly, much of the reading is surface level.

  • I don’t think Nafisi is my cup of tea, but Our Declaration sounds fantastic!

  • Jess – A Book Hoarder

    I started to get into a rant about Common Core and then caught myself so I’ll just say…great reviews. They are both on my list.

  • Yeah Nafisi makes a good point in the blue box above. I liked her book Reading Lolita in Tehran but wonder if she gets a bit preachy in this book? It makes me a little uneasy of her general premise that Americans are losing their creativity or whatnot but she seems to make good points from what I’ve heard

    • I’m a little wary of sweeping generalizations like that, too, especially if they push against technology. I think we’re quite creative, but just create in different ways. There were a few points that started to inch in that direction, but I found myself agreeing with her more often than not.

  • I didn’t get the disjointed feeling, but I think I went into it thinking it was going to be more like three essays in one… so the binding theme was a nice surprise, I guess! :) Really loved reading her thoughts on Common Core. I couldn’t find a way to include this in my review, but a week or so before reading this, a couple of my flute students were telling me how much they hate English now, how they “aren’t reading any books” (their words), just documents and speeches right now. These were kids who, in middle school, used to come to lessons excited about what they were reading and having to tell me alllllll about it, since they know I loved to read, too. It was interesting timing, reading the Nafisi title while thinking about our conversation. :/

    • Yeah, it’s been a major shift. It’s a shame they can’t do a better job really digging into those texts, too – just look how much is in the Declaration of Independence alone! But they are really just expected to know surface level details before moving on to the next piece, so we’re really not teaching them much of anything…such a shame.

      • Oh, I didn’t realize they are only doing surface level details, too. That makes me sad. If they’re going to replace novels, go ahead and dig deep on whatever you’re reading, kwim? :(

  • I think I would have to read all three books referenced by Nafisi before picking her book up (I’ve only read Huck Finn), although I do enjoy books about books.

    http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/my-year-in-non-fiction.html

    • I think she does a good job assessing her audience and knows that most will have read Huck Finn, but maybe not the others. She does the most literary analysis there and more surface connections in the other sections, so I didn’t feel like I missed much by not having read Babbit, but I can see wanting to read all three first.

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  • lulu_bella

    These both sound so great! I’m like Brona – I’d have to read the three books in The Republic of Imagination before reading Nafisi’s book, because I’d really want to have more of an understanding of her points.

    • I had read 2 of the 3 and I really think Huck Finn is the most important one to have read…she does a great job explaining the major connections with the others (I think she assumes fewer people will have read them). But I can totally see why you would want to read them first!