Some days I find myself returning to the same word as if I meant to stay near home base in a game of tag. I use “daunting” for the fourth time since 8 am or wander once more toward “necessity” or “bankrupt” or “vehement” or “flummoxed.”
Lately, my favorite word is “sophisticated.” My teaching life includes a number of repetitive tasks—marking papers, writing grade reports, talking with students about an assignment, and meeting with parents on conference day—and in each of those settings, the word “sophisticated” has been floating up like an indomitable buoy. I’ll call a student writer’s point of view “unsophisticated” instead of “superficial” or “reductive,” and I use “sophisticated” as a synonym for complex, focused, refined, subtle, discerning, nuanced, observant, and insightful. I use the word too much.
What is sophisticated anyway? Some listeners must hear the word as elitist or effete, and saying students should aim for sophistication presumes some state I know and they do not. Truth is, I only know it when I see it and can offer little help on how to attain it except to say, “You need to be more subtle, discerning, nuanced, observant, etc.”
Dictionaries may equate “sophisticated” with “cultured,” but my definition doesn’t rely on convention or history but on a sense of the work being beyond what’s usual or expected. A sophisticated work of art promises another vision of a reality we thought we knew. It evinces an outlook more abundant than our own, one that, even if we were to revisit it endlessly, would still promise dimension and depth.
Of course, when I urge sophistication on my students, I’m not aiming so high. I just want them to account for contradictions and complexities and acknowledge and accommodate deviation and variety. I want them to incorporate odd moments and address troubling or confusing elements. The students want to be decisive, authoritative, persuasive, and right, but I want them to explore more, appreciate questions, revel a little in mystery.
Our desires sometimes put us at odds, and students will sometimes say to me, in effect, “Don’t you want to know what it all means?” and “Wouldn’t it be more manageable just to explain my opinion?” My answer isn’t altogether honest but the best I can do when the convention is to have a point, not to make inquiry the point. I say, “Yes, but to find out what it means or support your opinion, you can’t ignore contradiction—you have to account for a piece of literature collectively as well as narrowly.”
You can imagine how poorly these instructions go over. Many of my colleagues think I’m foolish to ask so much of high schoolers, and most English teachers, sensibly probably, prefer papers that resemble legal briefs with “arguments” and “evidence” and “proof.” Students will write more sophisticated essays later, they say. Maybe, but when will they get the practice necessary to do so?
Perhaps self-preservation makes me ask for something else. I’m not sure I’ll survive another “analysis” demanding that I capitulate to the true meaning of the green light in Gatsby or that I forsake all others in accepting the writer’s answer for Macbeth’s tragic flaw. After thirty plus years of rereading and reappraising literary works, I’m no longer amenable to arguments asserting I’ve had it wrong all along.
In contrast, I want to cry with joy when a student appreciates the way an artist creates a problem or balances multiple possibilities one against the other. Here is a sophisticated writer, I think, someone who truly loves this work, sees it as somehow beyond complete understanding and wants to explain its complexity instead of some myopic avowal of its meaning. Here is a writer with a lover’s inexhaustible attention to quirks and charms, someone who might someday want to join art’s conversation and create something just as worthy of scrutiny.
Okay, so I’m being quixotic again—because it’s my wont and hope never dies in me. I became an English teacher because I love books, stories, poems (and also, music, dance, and every other form of art). I would be proud to attain half the understanding and insight expressed by artists I admire. I want to see the world in as many colors, to hear more tones, to smell more, taste more, feel more. And I think, wouldn’t it be tremendous to help students experience art rather than reduce it to thesis-sized claims? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to help them perceive everything around them—the sophisticated and the simply beautiful—so richly?