Middlesex All-School Read 2012
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Each summer Middlesex School students and faculty, both new and returning, participate together in the All-School Read (ASR). It is an opportunity to think about topics of personal and political significance. Successful texts engage our imagination, our conscience, and our intellect. They invite us to look critically and creatively at ourselves, as also at our communities and our world. For a list of past ASRs, click the link to right of this page.
This Summer's ASR: Chosen by our incoming Director of Spiritual and Ethical Education, Cabell King, this summer’s ASR is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. At its heart, the book chronicles the experiences of the Lee family, Hmong refugees from Laos, as they seek treatment from western medical practitioners for their young daughter’s epilepsy. Nested within the narrative are chapters on Hmong history and customs. The book has received a number of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and has become standard reading in programs in medicine and anthropology.
Big Ideas: The book investigates the possibility and deep obstacles of cultural translation. Though it sometimes feels like Hmong culture and American medical culture encounter at cross purposes, Fadiman encourages her readers to understand conflict less in terms of incompatible interests than in terms of misunderstanding. The challenge of communication is to recognize the particular humanity (history, interests, commitments) of one’s interlocutor. Communication is always communication with a specific audience. The less one acknowledges one’s audience, the less successful communication is likely to be. The story takes shape around the diagnosis of an illness: the description of symptoms, the ascription of cause, and the prescription of treatment. At issue is not just the adequacy of medical science, but power, authority, and credibility to define a problem. Fadiman invites us to consider how a cultures much different than each other illuminate one another, revealing presuppositions and prejudices, strengths and insights.
Big Questions: In her preface, Fadiman says that this evokes questions in her: “What is a good doctor?” “What is a good parent?” In this vein, perhaps it compels each of us to ask, What is it to care about another person with perspectives, positions, and experiences different than my own? How might I work with that person to accomplish shared objectives?
Perhaps this text also gets us thinking about the deep interaction of culture and religion. What is religion, and how does it interact with fundamental understandings of the world? What functions might it serve, and where might it become an obstacle to valuable kinds of experience, interaction, or thinking? How do some elements of culture, like commitments to western medical science, work to shape, supplant, or displace religion, even to become a kind of religion?
This year’s ASR is about regard for others. About humility, expertise, and power. It is about defining problems, identifying causes, and seeking solutions. In short, it is about the ethics of communicating well. Throughout the project, we will ask questions about medicine, immigration, and multiculturalism. The coming year will include a number of community conversations and guests to campus to discuss these themes.
If you have any questions or comments about the All-School Read, please email Cabell King.