What gives meaning to our life? How do we know how to live a good life? A meaningful life? On what foundations do we earn respect in our community? What gives us a sense of worth and dignity?
"Things Fall Apart," by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, is a beautiful, painful, detailed account of a Nigerian man, pride of his tribe, who gradually discovers everything in his life falling apart after the tribe encounters white Christian missionaries in the late 19th century. The novel in no sense is about the white Christian missionaries; they are peripheral figures for the most part. Most of the novel takes place before they enter the scene. Instead, the book is a rich account of a very alien culture for us today, one which is an explicit patriarchy, with gender norms that would be considered unacceptable today. Twin babies are buried in the forest; there are many superstitions, from our perspective, that seem outrageous and shocking.
Our students recently spent several weeks discussing Achebe's novel and learning to love and appreciate the dignity and community of such a different culture, as well as what is lost in our world relative to such a world. More relevantly, in a world in which cultural change and diversity is a constant, our teens entered into a world in which people have a deep, constant, abiding relationship to nature, the rain and the rain forest. Cultural traditions and extended family provide a situated structure for the self that is unimaginable today.
Our approach to understanding literature is as a way of understanding life. Our conversations on literature at ATI are designed so that our students reflect on their own lives, their own identifies, and the culture within which they are embedded. While reading classic texts, we are supporting our students in learning about life.
Are things falling apart?