Writer Azar Nafisi explores the role of imagination, education and literature in democracy

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Boise State’s latest entry into the Honors College’s “Distinguished Lecture Series” was met with a full room, as additional chairs were brought in to accommodate the students, faculty and community members who stood along the outline of the Jordan Ballroom in the SUB on Monday, Sept. 25.

“We hope that tonight’s lecture is not just about tonight—that you will take away a spark of curiosity, and that it will lead you throughout the entire year,” said President Bob Kustra to the ballroom of students.

The night’s speaker was best-selling author and English literature professor Azar Nafisi, who grew up in Iran and became an American citizen in 2008. In accordance with previous speakers, Nafisi is also connected to Boise State’s “Campus Read” program, as Nafisi’s is one of the 14 essays selected for students to read and discuss this year. Once at the podium, Nafisi spent the evening exploring the link between imagination and democracy.

“I believe imagination is essential to our very survival as human beings,” Nafisi said. “Once you enter the republic of imagination, there are no more limitations of nationality, language, race, gender, religion or ethnicity. Time and space lose their meaning.”

Though she touched on many topics, this sentiment echoed throughout the lecture. For Nafisi, only through imagination are we able to establish empathy for one another. Since we can’t physically place ourselves in the life experiences of those around us, we use the hypothetical. Furthermore, books bring us to that aforementioned space between realities as well.

“When you go to a library or bookstore or university, does anyone ask for an ID card or asked who you voted for before letting you in? No,” Nafisi said. “Because libraries and bookstores are the most democratic spaces you can find. All the famous authors and different parts of the universe—from different times and spaces—are all living very peacefully side by side.”

Nafisi also spoke on a number of issues facing students, discussing the struggle many students feel when choosing between a liberal arts degree or STEM fields. Ultimately, Nafisi suggested not only do we need both, but the two are more similar than some may think, as both are rooted in human curiosity.

The speaker touched on the role of difficult discourse on campuses as well, saying a phrase she often hears from students is “I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Well, you’re not supposed to be comfortable with that,” Nafisi said. “Life is not comfortable—it is sometimes comfortable. Pain will make you aware of wellness. You need pain, discomfort and difficulty. That is why you come to college.”

Primarily, Nafisi urged students to ask questions—to be critical of their environment. Because if—as she argued—education and knowledge are what allow us to have true empathy and therefore democracy, it is indispensable.

“You’re here to question, and to be questioned. You are here to sit next to the person you completely disagree with because this is a democracy,” Nafisi said. “Why should you pay $40,000 a year to go to university? Great, quality public education and health are the right of any individual of any society, but especially a democratic society. It is not being lazy—those who are lazy will be left behind if the education is quality.”

Afterward, while signing books, Nafisi expanded on this idea, saying students put so much effort into protesting an unwanted speaker coming to campus, but spend little time protesting and criticizing the quality of their education.

Ultimately, Nafisi hopes students will continue to approach knowledge in a way that creates empathy, and bridges any gap where it is possible to do so.

“Empathy is a word that is used much, but understood very little. Not only do we come together to celebrate our differences, but we celebrate what we share,” Nafisi said. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? We all bleed.”

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About Author

Brandon is a senior studying English with an emphasis in rhetorical writing. As editor-in-chief of The Arbiter, Brandon hopes to assist the staff of Student Media in achieving their goals of engaging and informing the student body by encouraging discourse and striving for excellence in journalism ethics and content. When not in the office, Brandon enjoys reading, playing music and serves as president of the Creative Outlet Writing Club (or COW Club) on campus.

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