Great works of literature and great teachers have a similar purpose in the lives of their readers and students. This purpose, according to Philip Sidney, is to “teach and delight.” I would argue further that their purpose is to teach and delight in a peaceful manner, in a way that fosters discussion instead of controlling the conversation for the furthering of their own agendas. As Ms. O’Reilley states in her article, “The Peaceable Classroom,” she wanted her students to be able to “talk to each other freely” without losing any insight due to the commandeering force of “the least astute and perceptive voices” that can sometimes take over the classroom conversation before the quieter students get a chance to speak up—much like Billy’s daughter in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (105, 111). Great literature does this as well, in its own way. If the work is meant to last, it will do so based on its ability to let the ideas inspired by it grow freely in the minds and discussions of others. Just as the classroom is a “meeting place for silent meditation and verbal witness,” so too will a great work of literature be (110).
The idea of the classroom being a place for contemplation and growth proves itself to be increasingly important as so much of the “school” experience leaves students thinking back on bad experiences they have had involving teachers who made them feel like they could not succeed. This is the type of schooling, O’Reilley says, that encourages the growth of the seeds of war within its students. How then, we must ask, can we teach the next generation in a way that encourages the seeds of empathy and a general understanding of the world we live in to grow?
I think the best way to foster empathy in schools is through teaching the difficult books. The books that makes us ask hard questions. The ones that transport us into another person’s life and ask us to examine our world through their eyes. Only then can we begin to grasp what it is like to be the veteran, to be the person of another race, another gender, etc. One of these books is Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
The Tralfamadorians offer readers a vastly different perspective from the average American view on life. A lot of what they end up saying is “gibberish” to Billy, but they also have trouble understanding things like Billy’s conception of time (114). Billy expected them to be baffled by all of the wars that took place on Earth over the course of its history, but they treated the issue with their usual “so it goes” mentality. While we have these snippets with the Tralfamadorians, we also have the stark contrasting elements of Billy’s time in the war and his time at home in Ilium. The time with the aliens is obviously supposed to raise questions about the scenes that break theirs up, but what questions is it supposed to raise? We see times of peace, times of war, times of an aging man being bossed around by his children, times of a young man recovering from trauma—and all of this is broken up in a nonlinear fashion by his time spent in space.
It is in this way that Vonnegut’s book serves as a work that both teaches and delights. We have a kooky narrative on the surface level about an old man who time travels in his head thanks to being abducted by aliens, but on a deeper level we have a passionate antiwar novel written by a man who fought in the very war our protagonist finds himself to be a part of. Maybe the Tralfamadorians are meant to serve as the classroom period O’Reilley speaks of. Billy’s time with them seems to be a time for “silent meditation” since he is mostly alone and the aliens only communicate telepathically. He is able to break away from the terror of the war and from the oppressive mediocrity of his old age in order to spend time with them and think about what is happening back on Earth depending on where he has just come from. Maybe that is what the time in a classroom should be for us: a time to break away and discuss the world around us in a safe and accepting space.