In the April 18, 2015 issue of WORLD Magazine Andree Seu Peterson had a column entitled “A class about nothing” which was subtitled “Psychology professor offers intensive case studies of the imaginary.” The premise of her column was the absurdity of a Rutgers University professor “teach[ing] psychology to medical students through reruns of Seinfeld. They analyze Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine for greater insight into narcissism, obsessive-compulsion, and inability to forge meaningful relationships.” Later, Peterson writes, “The Rutgers professor is not merely adducing illustrations; he is studying the episodes like Rommel studying a map of North Africa. He has created a database of every Seinfeld episode and its teaching points, and he assigns two episodes a week.” This may seem silly to some people, and the merits of studying a 1990s sitcom that poked fun at itself for being a show about nothing could surely be debated. Given some of the other college and university course offerings I have heard of, though, this would not, in and of itself, be sufficient fodder for an entire column (or blog post) in my opinion. Peterson apparently did not think so either, because she extrapolated on her shock at the course content to include an attack on the possibilities of learning anything from fiction.
That probably sounds extreme, and I think so too–so I will let Peterson speak for herself. “Does anybody besides me have a problem with this?” she writes. “Is it gauche to point out that Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine are sitcom characters? These are not real people. They are made up. They have no true existence. They have no deep-seated motivations, no real histories, no actual upbringings, no formative years.” This is all true, of course. However, the implication that because these four sitcom characters are not real people we cannot learn anything from the show is ludicrous. Peterson has admitted in other columns that she does not watch television–which is certainly fine–so perhaps she has a grudge toward the medium itself that is tainting her position on the teaching power of fiction–in whatever form it may appear. After all, if the fact that Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine “are not real people” means that we cannot learn anything from watching them it would necessarily be true that we cannot learn anything from reading Robinson Crusoe, The Scarlet Letter or any other literary work of fiction. Nor could we learn anything from watching movies that are not based on fact. Theatrical productions resulting a writer’s creative mind would be out, too.
In fact, if Peterson’s point is carried to its extreme, we could learn nothing from the parables of Jesus. There are myriad lessons to be gleaned from the story of the prodigal son or the parable of the sower or the parable of the ten virgins, but guess what? The prodigal son, the sower and the ten virgins were not real people. They had no more true existence, deep-seated motivations, histories or upbringings than Jerry and his pals do. Stories, however, communicate powerfully. My favorite professor in college stressed that history is a narrative. I agree, and I enjoy history because I know it is a story, not just names and dates and places. Racial prejudice comes alive far more in fictional accounts than in reading newspaper accounts of the actions of Klan members and good ol’ boys down south who did everything they could to prevent integration and equal rights for African Americans. I could elaborate at length on the merits of literature and the teachable moments that are created by good fiction, but I think you probably already recognize that.
Peterson elaborates, saying that the closest thing she can think of in the Bible to a professor teaching psychology through the use of Seinfeld episodes is the “dim-witted idol-maker: ‘He cuts down cedars. … He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. … And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”‘ (Isaiah 44:14-17). In a bizarre demonstration of self-delusion, he makes a like–then believes it.” Sadly, Peterson is so far off-base here that it is not even funny. The “dim-witted idol-maker” is taking an inanimate object and ascribing to it knowledge, wisdom and power that it certainly does not have because he just created it out of the same material that he is using for fire wood. To suggest that believing that a god-made-from-logs is the same thing as believing that it is possible to learn life lessons from works of fiction boggles my mind. It may well be one of the most foolish things I have heard in a very long time.
“The Bible is different,” Peterson writes. “Cain, Lot, and Absolom are real people, with real childhoods and real thought processes.” True, those examples are. As already mentioned above, however, the Bible also teaches us with fictional people. “It makes no sense to try to find motives in cardboard facsimiles,” Peterson concludes. This is simply not true. The creative arts–whether literature, sitcoms, feature-length films, plays, visual art such as painting and sculpture–can and do teach us. In fact, the danger is not in suggesting that there are lessons to be learned therein but rather in suggesting that they are harmless and void of influence. It is when we stop realizing that the television shows we watch, the books we read and the movies we view have the power to teach and to influence that we are walking straight into a trap. Such a position grows out of a deep lack of understanding that has potentially life-changing consequences. That is what makes no sense.