Now that the Spring Term 2017 has closed, I’m drawn to reflect on the Good Stories course: purpose and possibilities, intentions, redirections, serendipities. In looking over open-ended notes from the final days, I’m taken back to the inception of Good Stories, back to re-read a mostly-forgotten blog composed when planning for the first session some six years, over eleven hundred students ago. In January 2011, my deliberations about the purpose for Good Stories concluded:
Cooperation depends on maturity, not naïveté. Civilization advances partially through the detection and treatment of cheaters. Boyd [author of the primary textbook] states that our stories teach us how to do that. My engagement in this text meshes forward into my appreciation and high value for integrity. The compelling story consists in the truth of the word and speaker infused inseparably. Society urgently depends on such storytellers/leaders as well as citizens with story savvy who discern lies and cheaters. Discernment depends on purification.
Over the fifteen times the course ran, we did engage stories featuring betrayal and deception. While we searched out applications to both the individual and the local level to discern lies from truth, the themes that resonated more frequently and strongly focused courage, perseverance, love, and on the pair found in the subtitle of the course: peace and justice. In concert with the textbook, Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, our course progressed through four levels of explanation, culminating in the Particular Level.
Boyd illustrates the particular level:
“even highly creative persons create in distinctively personal patterns. Shakespeare learned from the opportunities and examples of the drama of his day-blank verse, rhetorical exuberance, multiple plots, the genres of tragedy, comedy, and history-but from the first extended them in his own way, becoming, as his work matured, more idiosyncratic in vocabulary, phrasing, imagery, meter, speech construction, characterization, scenic structure, plot development, plot parallelism, emotional change and range, and sheer artistic confidence. By working at their own kinds of problems intently, geniuses can build on their expertise, their peculiar neural networks, their own mental materials and methods, rather than reinventing elements and methods each time from scratch. Even writers with a high inclination or a high determination to maximize novelty will reach positions and discover practices distinctly their own that they continue to recycle and recombine in their own way." (p. 356, Kindle 4039-4044)
Boyd explicates this level and its application to moral sense most thoroughly in his focus on Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, and specifically in Horton Hears a Who!
Part of what makes the story so satisfying, indeed, is the delicate balance between our admiration for Horton's having the courage to stand up for himself despite the pressure of his entire jungle community and young Jo-jo's having the decency to respond to the pressure of his community. Both nonconformity and conformity have their claims. This kind of symmetry may not be consciously noticed even by most adult readers, yet it contributes naturally to our sense of the rightness of the story. In his case, Horton has good reason to resist the other animals; in his, Jo-jo has good reason to join his fellow Whos. (page 374; 4244-4248 Kindle)
In Good Stories, we applied the particular level to the production of the final Digital Media Project. The assignment was explained:
DMP3 shows movement toward the Particular Level where the previous three levels are best engaged, both now and in a future vision, for “truth” in answering the big questions of peace and justice, in a specific response to the individual’s destiny, gift, opportunity, and responsibility. DMP3 shows the transformation necessary to move toward destiny (including humans' progression toward cooperation) and the transformation develops through challenges.
Evident in a note written on May 12, the day after the last class, I see one of those words emphasized—gift. Perhaps emerging over the fifteen terms as most important to me was a wish and intention that the course serve as a gift to the lovely students, in ways like grandchildren—especially shown in the tears of the one staying as all others left the room to say, “I don’t want it to end.” If our time together led to the gift of stories, our course doesn’t end. As the May 12 note put it:
“Gift” closes up inaccurately, like a flower that reverses into a bud instead of opening into the fullness of the bloom. Yes, it moves toward the petal-dropping moment, a direction threatening, calling to the edges of our misguided mind the specter of death. But, “No problem,” as the now-phrasing gives it. The gift from God, the distinctive mark to each being, is a giving, continuous flowing, not owned by us. That unique fingerprint of now, the DNA of one’s true identity, dare not be mine but only known to be the longing, pulling toward and uniting with the source.