Knowledge of Good and Evil

The epilogue of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible hangs in silence in the last minutes of class, images of haunted farms and wrongly-executed non-witches dispersing like smoke into the sunny Friday afternoon.

I congratulate my students on finishing the first book of the year, and ask them what they think. The reply is nearly unanimous: We don’t like this.

“You don’t have to like what happens to like the end of a book,” I remind them. “No one likes what happens. You shouldn’t like it.  But there are good things, too. What’s good about it?”

One girl, an artist in the back of the room, raises her hand. She’s sharp and thoughtful, so I have high expectations for her answer. Artist, however, can’t be bothered with my question. She has one of her own.

“Do you think that the Devil was actually working in Salem? I mean, in the girls?”

It’s been a week of odd questions. This last one reminds me of the most common inquiry:

“So… wait. Who is actually doing witchcraft in Salem?”

It’s in this “actually” that I realize that I’m reading The Crucible through new eyes. As a student and later a teacher in Seattle Public Schools, it never occurred to me to ask whether or not there were real witches in Salem. And while I still rather doubt there were, the question reveals an advantage my students have in their interactions with the world. They can discern–and name–good and evil.

“What is evil?” my AP English teacher asked us on September 11, 2001, that patchwork Tuesday on which my six teachers tried, each in his or her own way, to walk us through global-scale tragedy. In English class, we discussed evil in the abstract, none of us eager to point out the obvious answers offered on television. Eventually, our conversation ground to a horrified halt. The only ones who could come to any conclusions, regarding evil or good, were those who felt brave enough to reference God as the origin of good, evil’s antithesis. We were the only ones sure, that day.

Now an English teacher myself, I remember it ten years later. Though I haven’t yet walked through this kind of catastrophe with my students, in some senses each year reading literature we examine the spectrum of human life. While we have the opportunity to see all sides and try to understand, I must remember that we also have the responsibility of discerning between life and death, good and evil.  We can mourn for Salem, broken and twisted by genuine evil, even as we admire those who resisted, clinging to truth in the darkest of times.

And this practice, together celebrating good and discerning evil, is possibly the most valuable lesson I can share for this real life we live and real world in which we live. It’s an honor, every day.