Over the last semester we have read a variety of sources, from Sidney’s Defense of Poesy to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. They all respond in some way to the course theme of “Defending Society.” We began our class by asking the question  “defending society from what?” The implicit answer for Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy was “from fiction.” That is, to defend poesy (fictional writing) he had to first perceive that it was under attack. Fiction was under attack from both other intellectual elites and from Puritans. Sidney spends most of his time defending fiction from the charges of the elites. Jonson, on the other hand, in Bartholomew Fair focuses on the second group of people who feel that society is under attack from fiction. He makes fun of judgmental Puritans and legal authorities in order to advance his own defense fictional entertainments.

Our next pairing, Milton and Bradbury, think of writing in general (not just fiction) as being under attack in their respective historical moments. Milton’s Areopagitica argues against pre-publication censorship, while Bradbury focuses on post-publication censorship (book burnings). They both argue that censorship is the same as killing ideas, and that killing ideas is as bad or worse than killing people.

With this thematic arc, we practiced core communication skills. For instance, students developed ability to evaluate the best aspects of opposing arguments so to more effectively persuade people with different views. They also practiced making arguments in such a way that people don’t feel attacked. The following observations came out of our discussion about how we can apply what we’ve learned in this class regarding Defending Society (or fiction) to life and our own critical thinking practices:

  • Form your own opinion
  • Don’t be dismissive – acknowledge the best form of your opponent’s argument
  • Truth claims of fiction vary and need to be understood in context
  • Be aware of when fiction’s imitation of reality might trick you into thinking reality is different than it is
  • Censorship is complicated – not always cut-and-dried.
  • Recognize your audience – many times people who disagree strongly with you feel under attack.