To Teach Literature

(Working Title Films/Studio Canal)
(Working Title Films/Studio Canal)

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how we teach literature in schools, that is, how students from elementary to high school are introduced to reading and, eventually, great books. I mean ‘great’ in terms of a book being celebrated or technically well-executed, not necessarily as one that I like and would suffer reading in my free time.

A brief disclaimer: I speak as a person who has been through the American public school system as a student and has a little experience being on the other side of things during a stint as a tutor. I do not, however, speak as someone in the system, as someone who organizes curriculum. It should be noted that this is just one girl’s opinion. 

With some choice exceptions, I think that the fundamental intentions and goals we have for our kids are good ones: to get children to like reading from an early age, and as they progress through school, expose them to important literary works, not only to develop their critical thinking skills as students, but to encourage them to become informed world citizens. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but one of those things that is, as they say, much easier said than done.

I don’t think it’s the teachers who are responsible for what I perceived as students’ systematic apathy towards the study of literature—hell, I was one of them. After high school, I ended up majoring in English literature practically in spite of my public school education—this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have wonderful English teachers who were both passionate and engaging with their material; I had several, and I am thankful for them everyday.

The problem, the fault, the blame, whichever you like, is in the nature of teaching literature itself. Obviously, reading from a young age is important to a child’s attitude towards literature later in life, as I’ve discussed before. But there’s more. Reading can easily become a chore when it becomes difficult, or when it repeatedly fails to stimulate a child’s interest. Students often enter classes in higher-level literature in high school with a fairly ingrained attitude towards reading. For my part, I entered high school loving to read, but the curriculum featured by my high school was often discouraging, and I often feel lucky that I managed to make it out of high school with my love for books and reading still in tact.

In my personal experience, the material taught in high school felt as though it was attempting to tick off a checklist, for example, to make sure students could identify epic poetry, ballads, Shakespearean sonnets, the differences between tragedies and comedies, and the three types of irony by the end of the first semester (that was a completely arbitrary assembly of things, by the way). But what the curriculum failed, and fails, I think, to inspire is any engagement with why these are important things to master. Even more damning is that high school curriculums present the material without any question that that material is important, full stop. As an ex-teenager and as a person who has dedicated years studying the nuances of literature in all its forms, I can tell you that there are very few teenagers, book-lovers or not, who give a hippogriff’s left buttock about what terza rima is.

The problem with teaching literature, the problem that leaves many students wondering, “Why does this even matter? Why can’t we learn something more useful? Why are we doing this? I hate this,” is that literature curriculums fail to understand the point of studying literature.

We should, undoubtedly, make sure that students are exposed to important literature, even if they hate it in the process. I cannot tell you how much I hated reading Moby Dick (which I actually read in college, not high school), but it was certainly a character-building experience. But I also think that it’s important to appeal to the fact that high school students are teenagers who, just by virtue of being teenagers, make it a point not to care about what you tell them to care about. It’s important to temper the literary and the profound with something that is decidedly not literary, but still very entertaining and encourages students to read because it can fun if you let it.

It’s also important to engage with why it’s important to read the longwinded, thoughtful, and iconic novels and poetry that students often find exhausting and disheartening—it’s important because books are the best way to open yourself to new experiences. That, in my mind, is the only truly important reason, but it’s great if there are more (there are). It’s important that students know that they are 100% allowed to hate Hemingway, Shakespeare, Thoreau, or any other canonical author, but they sure as hell better be able to explain why. It’s important that curriculums teach with students, not at them, because that’s not how literature works. Literature is one of the most subjective, emotional, and confrontational fields of study, and it cannot effectively be taught as if it is a constant, as if it is static. It is more important to learn why a writer chose to use a villanelle style than to memorize a villanelle’s structure that you can identify one on the final exam. It’s more important that a student only reads one of Shakespeare’s plays to end up absolutely, categorically hating it but being able to say why, than that he or she has read several Shakespearean comedies, tragedies, and histories but has no opinion or thought about any of them.

It seems like a delicate balance to strike, teaching important but unpopular classics while also trying to stimulate a student’s love of and positive attitude towards reading, but it doesn’t have to be. In creating high school literature curriculums, educators should not just consider what it means to study literature, but more importantly, what it means to experience it.

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