The Trouble with Literature Classes

As students we are compelled–be it by parents, our own desires, or the law– to sit through a number of classes that seem quite pointless at the time (and often years down the road as well). For many, literature classes fall into this same category of just-get-though-it-and-eventually-you-won’t-have-to-do-it-again courses, but for others of us, those classes we a welcome relief. Being able to fall into a novel and call it schoolwork has a way of feeling a bit like cheating. You aren’t meant to enjoy education, surely. There is, however, a fundamental problem with literature classes and it is one that plagues the Arts as a whole– your curriculum is based, not off of a foundation of knowledge from which logic builds into more complex theories and practicalities as it is with math and the sciences. Instead, it is based on the discretion of the teacher, the school, and/or the state. Which is not to say that the Arts do not require a foundation to build from, simply that a foundation in literature will consist of hundreds of thousands of different books and literary experiences, rather than moving from counting to adding to subtracting to multiplying etc.

There is much to gain from early exposure to good literature but herein lies the problem. Who determines what literature is good literature? If you are or were so unfortunate as to attend a high school similar to my own (one which I do not believe is a rarity), you would be required, in your junior year, to analyze one particular novel to death, beating out every last drop of symbolism, bleeding it dry of all meaning and making what could possibly have been an enjoyable reading experience, a labored and depressing one (for me it was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) and then never be expected to pick up another literary work. Now, there is no doubt that Hawthorne’s work is an important piece of American literature, but was it more important than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or any of John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Mark Twain’s works? And these are but an extremely narrow selection of purely white, male, American authors; nothing contemporary, nothing even particularly aged given the ancient texts we have available, and certainly nothing that required a translated version. Yet this very narrow selection would not be at all out-of-place, and often not even expanded upon in your typical American high school. Now we all have guilt lists of books so commonly placed on the syllabus that we are embarrassed to admit to not having read them, however I take serious issue with students entering university-level courses with hardly even a cursory introduction to classics like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen, and Mary Shelley. If nothing else, because they will be painfully under-equipped to deal with analyzing these texts at a university level. Of course, then we face the issue of contemporary works. What makes Homer’s works any more valid for study than JRR Tolkein’s? Surely the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy can be counted among the greatest and most influential. What makes Orwell’s 1984 a more scholarly pursuit than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Yes, classical literature, both mainstream and obscure, offer much to the educational literary canon, but as Sabena pointed out in her post The Significance of the colour red in “King Lear”… those high-brow classics of today we the trashy crap of their time. What about novels like Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie? Why aren’t we studying Harry Potter in classes? What makes Samuel Richardson’s Pamela more relevant than Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Why is it that such options are not provided alongside their more typically canonical and established classics? Do we gain more from a text whose author is dead? Do we fear that a living author may contradict our interpretations? Is it the lack of previous scholarly research that precludes these more recent works from classroom analysis? Is it safer to wall adolescents into the confines of a few acceptable books from ages past? Obviously my high school experience was not universal, but there does seem to be a discrimination among academics against newer texts. The genres and periods of study are strangely exclusive, especially in American schools, an it is often not until college/university level (and sometimes not then) that the scope of the canon is broadened to a wider world of literature.

What if we didn’t wait until the university level to expose students to the literary merits of… well, literature? What if we offered them the option to analyze texts of their choice from a scholarly perspective? Does that not then give credence to the text? There seems to be a lingering discomfort of looking too closely at texts that are impacting the world we currently occupy as well as contemporary texts that deal with the fantastic and science fiction. Limiting literature to such a narrow selection of complicated and archaic texts only serves to deter students who are already disinclined to read. Literature and the arts are what they are because of their creators’ freedom to express themselves. The study of these works should be no more limited than its creation. Liberate literature and remove the narrow lens through which we look at it and we will broaden minds, research, knowledge, and education as a whole.

And I leave you with this reading recommendation: Nick Sagan’s Idlewild. Happy reading!

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One thought on “The Trouble with Literature Classes

  1. Very thought-provoking! As a long-time English major and grad student, I can sympathize. But to play devil’s advocate, I’ve been introduced to a ton of great stuff through my required course reading. I ran into Pynchon, Ruskin, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison as course texts first, and although it’s not the best way to be introduced to new lit- there’s an unstated implication that you “should” like or at least appreciate it- it broadened my horizons. Then again, most of my all-time favourites are authors I discovered on my own time…

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