“The Role of Literature in Times of Division”

Boston University English Professor Anita Patterson dialogues with Boston-area university students on the benefits of deep engagement with literature at The Ikeda Center.

Open mind—Anita Patterson (far right), of Boston University, explores with Boston-area students the potential of literature to instill hope amid division, Cambridge, Mass., April 12. Photo: Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning and Dialogue.

by Mitch Bogen

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 12—In her dialogue held at the Ikeda Center with Boston-area university students, Anita Patterson, an English professor at Boston University, argued that deep engagement with literature offers unique, even practical benefits for those looking to transcend our polarized discourse.

While planning the seminar themed “The Role of Literature in Times of Division,” the center staff drew inspiration from Daisaku Ikeda’s statement in his 2017 Peace Proposal: “I am not . . . pessimistic about humanity’s future. My reason is the faith I place in our world’s young people, each of whom embodies hope and the possibility of a better future.”

Dr. Patterson confirmed that she shares Mr. Ikeda’s faith. “I was glad to see President Ikeda’s emphasis in his peace proposal on the potential of young people as critical agents of change whose energetic engagement will create a better world,” she said. “My life as a teacher is premised on this same belief in the need to attend to the rising generation.”

A first step in trusting the perspective of others, Dr. Patterson noted, is to learn to trust our own individuality and our unique responses to literature. “I’ve found that humanities education makes students more respectful of differences,” she said, “because in the humanities, we know there is always more we can learn from others, always one more nuance or perspective on [for example] a given poem.” Coming to realize you don’t know everything is a gift, “because when you stop learning, you put an end to life itself.”

During the dialogue, students considered how much capacity literature has to change both individuals and our world. Even those who have in the past found literature challenging to read confirmed Dr. Patterson’s view. Characters and stories they have encountered have made them more aware of how their experiences connect with those of others, encouraging greater empathy in the process.

The core conclusion of the seminar was that for literature to succeed in reducing polarization, the reader must approach it with an open heart and mind, and further, that one very important task for the teacher, perhaps the most important, is to nurture such qualities in students.


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