Saturday, October 19, 2013

Junot Diaz: What is youth good for?

Living in this part of the state, I am presented with so many amazing opportunities to hear great music and brilliant writers.  This week, Junot Diaz, the Domincan-American author and Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University as part of their top-notch Visiting Writers Series, just celebrating its twenty-fifth year.

As much as I enjoyed his reading a selection from his Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I was even more moved by his earlier comments, based on his experience as a teacher.  He asked the question: What is youth good for?  What can be done when you’re young? 

He suggested the answer: Adventure. He also pointed out that no parents told their children, “Move out! Major in whatever the hell you want.”  In fact, he says the 17 to 19-year-olds he encounters have been socialized to think like 68-year-olds. Their baseline is fundamentally FEAR.  He said even at MIT, where he teaches students considered the best and the brightest, those who should be most confident, they exist in waves of fear:  (Need to think every day about how to get a career, to make money.)  Adults, he said, know that there’s no controlling your world. Young people should have horizons, not fear.

He says the only way to become an artist is to begin at that place without fear—a hopeful place.  The artist, he says, imagines despite culture that what he or she is doing is irrelevant (“You’ll go broke.  Nobody cares what you do.”) Artists, he said, must have a “tremendous, almost evangelical hope.”  By contrast, people are geared toward “instrumental” vocations.  He said he wishes schools would put more art near students.  When we read the books we love most, he said, art grants us back to our better selves.  We create a safe harbor for our souls.  To trust what’s most important to anybody else, he says, is a bad idea.

He went on to say that the point of college is to be utterly transformed.  The fearful know nothing about compassion.  He says that his students so rarely have compassion for themselves.  They need to know, despite being told otherwise, that it is okay to fail. “The voyage of discovery is not possible without failing,” he said.  “The only way you discover anything new is by first being lost.”  There can be no life or learning without failure. 

Growing up in military family, he lived in a “culture of respectability.”  He says you “smoke the culture’s crack or you rebel.”  You have to grow and practice those [truth-telling] muscles.  He said, “I had to learn to tell the truth.” 

By the time he read from his work, the audience was his.  As he read a passage from the point of view of a young girl whose mother finds a lump in her breast, we were ready to suspend our disbelief and enter that world. As I left, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to help my own students overcome their fear.  Maybe I’ll start by surrounding them with more art—visual, literary, and musical.


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