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.”
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.