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Friday, April 13, 2012
The Big Idea
I recently enjoyed "What’s the big idea?" by Jennie Erdal, an article in Financial Times that came into my google reader today. Her question is literal, not idiomatic, and it is the same question that teachers routinely ask when creating a unit or learning activity. For teachers, it means what idea/concern of the real world does an activity and all of its resources explore? For Jennie Erdal, the question is whether novels are philosophical anymore in the sense of writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, James, and Kundara--or if they give up philosophy for intricate plots. More simply put: Are philosophical novels weak on plot and therefore boring? The implication is that for a book to have a "big idea," it must contain long passages to explain the underlying theories being illustrated by the characters in action.
Frankly, I loved Anna Karenina and The Brothers Dostoyevsky and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. These Big Books and others had characters who suffered magnificently in the face of dilemma. I loved the microscope held up to situations, or rather, the enlarging and dramatizing of the emotional situation so that a microscope was not necessary at all to get "the big idea." Today I find that this type of romantic tragedy bordering on naturalism remains in luscious mysteries by P.D. James and Elizabeth George and fantastic science fiction by Sheri Tepper and Octavia Butler, among others. Most recently, students tell me they find it in Twilight, Harry Potter, and in the Hunger Games--and otherwise they do not like to read..
In the classroom, the big idea need not be inferred from the elements of fiction, but may be explicitly stated in advance. The classroom then is the laboratory that tests out and debates the idea through a series of instances--fictional and non-fictional--presented by both teacher and students. Ultimately the learning community uses its experiences to examine "the big idea" itself and how it shapes perceptions, events, and artifacts. While students become Socratic, they also become structural engineers who examine how various events and artifacts in their environments are built on implicit ideas and are, therefore, able to strategically choose the degree of implicitness or explicitness of "the big idea" in their own work. If they are fast enough. Whether or not they can keep up, students and teachers learn the value of time, and how one thing cannot quite be resolved before the next must take its place, as in "We only have 3 days for this." The possible learning is profound, but the pace undermines the progress. Those sensitive to what they are not quite grasping can become quite defensive, irritated, angry, squashed, rebellious. Is this what the Financial Times author is ultimately noticing? What's the big idea of living like this? Is this breakdownof community the real big idea?
I believe that the big ideas are not sacrificed to plot, but changing into plot. The big ideas are pressured by space and time into the action of questioning itself. Back to "Dubito, ergo sum"? Not quite. This seems an intermediate stage before those who are unwillingly unemployed take back "the big" question, those who are squeezed out of the Picture of Progress in Industry, Faith, and Knowledge make themselves heard. Will this be through the fictional form? Not yet, or not evidently.
When I read those luscious novels of yore and even later ones like Animal Farm and 1984, I had the time. Now at the later end of life, I have time to read again and also to write. Publishing, however--on paper and in binding--takes resources and time. The internet is less expensive and travels faster. Maybe, then, the next type of philosophical novel is already up there twittering around the world in instant translation or in pictures of the quietly growing Occupy Movement or on Face Book or everywhere. If we are among the romantic who are longing to hold the magnificent philosophical novel in our hands and our hours, it is possible that we will, like Miniver Cheevy, miss it.