Our Brave New World
The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
(Viking Adult, 2014)
Azar Nafisi grew up in a middle-class Iranian family under the Shah. As a young girl, she romanticized America based on the ideals, energy, and aspirations celebrated in America’s best books, music, films, and art. As an adult, Nafisi taught several Western novels under the Iranian theocracy that put a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head. She found solace from her birth country’s violent oppression through her conviction in the subversive nature of ideas and literature and their universal potential in open or closed societies—the basis of her most famous bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Now an American citizen and professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature at Johns Hopkins University, Nafisi observes a different kind of oppression in America, one that is more subtle than a Supreme Leader’s fatwa to kill an infidel novelist. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, Nafisi warns that a rise in the insidious, utilitarian ideology in America today, and the neoliberal education reform it has engendered, threatens open and democratic society by extinguishing our imaginations. Her critique is spot on, but The Republic of Imagination, by offering little more than literature as an antidote, hits too softly.
As a child, Nafisi became enamored with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That book and other 20th century novels that deepened her understanding of America—by Sinclair Lewis, James Baldwin, and Carson McCullers—form the bedrock of The Republic of Imagination. Nafisi examines each author’s work, interspersing autobiography, and relates her analysis to contemporary American politics and culture.
In particular, Nafisi has a bone to pick with the Common Core, a national public school curriculum overhaul ostensibly intended to make American students more competitive in the global market. Nafisi, like many other Common Core critics, finds the curriculum rigid and stifling. But she skirts concrete examples of how literature, imagination, or alternative curricula could actually correct this ideological trend. Instead, she stresses the importance of American literature in general and its ability to open up the “Republic of Imagination,” a psychic landscape of boundless thought and creativity necessary to transcend social and political limitations of the state, church, or business. The goal, as Nafisi describes it, is to “find a deep fraternity based on empathy.”
Other than a few examples from history, like quotes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the essentials of private thought to women’s liberation or anarchist Peter Kropotkin on how imagination kept him sane and perseverant inside the walls of the Czar’s jail cell, she draws most of the evidence to support the book’s thesis from her own life. Because Twain, Lewis, and McCullers opened up questions of individual experience, agency, and morality for her, she feels their work can do the same for us as well.
Relying so heavily on her personal journey for narrative lacks political punch. Nafisi’s opinions on contemporary American culture and politics carry an overly muted tone, presumably at the behest of a publisher vying to churn out another bestseller.
Still, the book’s general critique of American life today rings true. Nafisi observes that we’ve lost our civic sensibilities and have withdrawn from the public domain into private interests. She convincingly compares us, desperately incapable of connecting with others or following our own intuition, to the lonely Southerners, unable to live out or even communicate their burning inner passions, in McCullers’s The Heart is A Lonely Hunter.
“Lately, I have discovered a new kind of loneliness, peculiar to our time… we seem in our own time to have become numb to our surroundings,” writes Nafisi. “In The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, the principal characters are equally unaware of their environment; they are too wrapped up in their own obsessions to see or hear one another, but their distractions give them no entertainment or comfort.”
While Nafisi draws connections between our lives and those of McCullers’s characters, she finds a great divide between Americans today and the central figures in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The rugged individualism and moral independence that allowed Finn to resist puritanical America, with its stuffy, monitored morality, and think for himself—the best of the American ideal—may now only exist in books.
“[Huck] gave us vital clues as to the kind of Americans we wanted to be,” writes Nafisi, referring to herself and fellow Iranian-born friend, Farah. “He reminded us...that at their best, American heroes are wary of being overcivilized, that they carve out their own path and look to their heart for what is right and just. How far we seemed to be, I would confide complicity to Farah, from that America, the one we had both discovered so many years ago when we first read Huckleberry Finn.”
Nafisi’s close reading of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt provides the most moving case for the revelatory power of literature in America today. She finds direct connections between Lewis’s iconic satire of American conformity and the neoliberal reform currently taking place in our public school classrooms. Babbitt strives for success in every aspect of his life in his medium-sized industrial town. He is a well-adjusted, well-liked businessman who preaches a utilitarian “vision” superior to the arts and literature, instead based on the morality of business. Nafisi makes a compelling case that Babbitt is best exemplified today by the prime architect of the Common Core curriculum, Dr. David Coleman.
Dr. Coleman, through the implementation of the relatively new Common Core State Standards, forces English teachers to deprioritize fiction. Instead, their lesson plans must rely more heavily on “informational texts,” which lumps together everything from Plato’s cave allegory to train schedules and Environmental Protection Agency reports. Presumably, this prepares public school students for their assumed role as future wage earners. As Nafisi sees it, Babbitt, or the “anti-Huck,” now dictates American public education.
Lest you think she’s reaching, Nafisi quotes from Dr. Coleman—who boasts degrees in philosophy and literature from Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge but has zero public school teaching experience—who says that students’ reading comprehension must “stay within the four corners of the text.” Essentially, the guidelines ask teachers to eschew subjective thought, feeling, or opinion in the classroom.
Nafisi relays many examples of this new curriculum’s “vision,” but the most disheartening occurred at a Los Angeles teacher training session. According to a teacher at the session, the Common Core representative forbade instructors from teaching the essential context of the Gettysburg Address before asking students to respond to it. Another participant at the session explained that instead of posing questions, such as why did the Civil War happen, what was at stake, and who was Abraham Lincoln addressing, the teachers were told to ask their students “text-dependent questions” and have them eke out a “cold, hard assessment” of Lincoln’s words.
Both Nafisi and I fear an America that discourages children from asking questions about how the Gettysburg Address makes them think or feel, or how it connects to their lives, to the riots in Ferguson, to mass incarceration, to Barack Obama or the Tea Party. Nafisi hints at the danger of an ideology that deprives students of the tools to develop understanding, temerity, and empathy. If we rob students of these tools in the name of utility or future wage earnings, we rob ourselves of the prospect of a free and open society. Sadly, her lament feels accurate. But to fight the Babbittization of America, we need to show our children and ourselves how to confront this “vision.” And that will take more than literature and imagination. It will take action.
JUSTIN SLAUGHTER is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press and San Francisco Bay Guardian.