Why teach literature in schools?

I was trying hard to think of a snappy title for this one, but eventually I decided this one will do. Why study literature in schools? That more or less sums up what I would like to discuss here. What use is literature to anyone? How does it help anyone in anything? What’s the point? 

Even if we were to accept that the teaching of literature in schools is important (and not everyone does accept this), a few more questions come to mind: 

To what extent should we prescribe books to children at school? Should we, indeed, prescribe books at all? In determining a literature curriculum, to what extent, if any, should we consider the children’s own preferences? What relevance to all this, if any, is the consideration that children may be put off literature by being made to study books they do not like?

Before we address any of these issues, I think we should consider a question more basic: what is the point of education at all? There are, of course, a number of answers to this, which are complementary rather than exclusive. An obvious answer is that the purpose of education is to prepare us for life, but that doesn’t get us very far: it leads us on merely to the next question, which is “what is required to ‘prepare us for life’?”

Up to a point, the purpose of education is to ensure that we can survive in society, and function in it. So the teaching of basic numeracy ensures that we can count up our change in the supermarket, the teaching of basic literacy ensures that we can read and understand letters from the council relating to bin collections, etc. However, I think most would agree that “preparation for life” should imply a bit more than this. Many would, I think, say that education should prepare us for a job that will earn us a living, and contribute to the society in which we live. In conjunction with this, many would say that education should also instil in us sufficient discipline to allow us to function within a structured society, without unduly compromising our individuality. The balance is, admittedly, a delicate one, but some balance has to be sought if society is to function at all; and, many would say, it is the purpose of education to provide us with just such a balance. I certainly wouldn’t dissent from any of this.

But is this all? For if it were, there is little point in teaching mathematics beyond basic numeracy. Oh, of course, those who want to take on accountancy or engineering or scientific research, or whatever, need to have more than merely basic skills in numeracy: but the vast majority don’t. The vast majority don’t need to know about trigonometrical functions, or about polynomials or differentials, or, indeed, about anything beyond basic arithmetic.

Similarly with other subjects. The vast majority of us don’t need to know what sort of chemical reaction occurs when acid comes into contact with alkali; we don’t need to know about the economic and social transformations that came with the Industrial Revolution; we don’t need to know Newton’s laws of motion, or about the formation of igneous rocks, or about the structure of human cells … and so on and so forth. Indeed, possibly the greater part of what is still in school curricula we don’t need to know: we can all function perfectly well without knowing them. So – why teach them? If education is simply about teaching the basics that we require to function in society, why not merely teach the children simply the basics, and, once they have finished primary school, let them out into the big bad world to do something useful, like sweep chimneys or something?

I think the answer to this is that education is more – or, at least, it should be more – than merely preparing children to function. Education seems to me to be about nothing less than propagating the values of our civilisation. It has taken us a great many centuries to arrive at our current point in civilisation. And yes, I know, the various civilisations of humankind are still greatly flawed; but nonetheless, we have come a long way from being tribes of hunter-gatherers, and, along the way, we have acquired an immense amount of knowledge, of thought, of wisdom. We have also an immense treasure-house of achievements – from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Beethoven’s symphonies, from the thought of Enlightenment philosophers to quantum physics, from the Taj Mahal to the development of the internet … the list is almost endless. I’d argue very strongly that one of the purposes of education must be to propagate the values that are embodied in what our civilisation has achieved, so the next generation can build on past achievements rather than start at Year Zero.

Of course, put this way, our education is never finished, as there is far more to take in than can be possible within one lifetime. This is indeed true: a proper education does last a whole lifetime, and even then is incomplete: it is a journey doomed to remain unfinished. But it must be the purpose of our schools at least to  start our children on this journey. And this is why it is correct for schools to teach about such matters as polynomials or the Industrial Revolution: it’s because, to be truly civilised, we should know more, much more, than merely the basics we need to be able to function.

In this context, let us consider the teaching of literature. The only reason to teach literature in schools at all is because we, as a society, believe that literature is an important aspect of our civilisation, and that, therefore, there needs to be, at the very least, a general awareness of it within our society if we are to consider ourselves truly civilised. If we do not believe this, there is no point teaching literature at all. But if we do believe this, then the question of whether or not the children enjoy being taught takes on less importance. We do not make decisions on the teaching of mathematics or of physics or of history based on the criterion of whether children are likely to enjoy it: we teach these subjects at school because, whether they enjoy it or not, we feel it’s good for them. Yes, I know this is authoritarian, but I don’t think you can entirely get away from authoritarianism when it comes to education: if it were merely a matter of the child’s own preferences, most children would prefer not to be at school at all.

But what, some may ask, what if the children don’t enjoy it? What if the poor little darlings don’t enjoy learning about Shakespeare and Austen and all the rest of them? It seems a curious question. When we are setting the curriculum for mathematics, do we really ask ourselves: “Will the children enjoy learning trigonometry?” We put it into the curriculum because we think it important that they learn about it, whether they enjoy it or not. Similarly with any other subject. We hope, of course, that at least some of them will find it enjoyable, but enjoyment is not (not yet, at any rate) amongst the criteria used to determine the curriculum in mathematics, or in geography, or in chemistry, or in whatever. And I think English literature should be considered as important as these other subjects: there are some things we need to learn regardless of whether or not we find them enjoyable – simply because it is good for us to learn them; simply because these things should be part of the mental furniture of a civilised human being.

Of course, one size doesn’t fit all. In an ideal world, every child should have special one-to-one tuition on all subjects. But in the real world, that is not possible, and the best we can do – and, indeed, should do – is to stream children according to their perceived abilities, while allowing for movement between streams for children who achieve more or less than had initially been expected. (And, furthermore, we should also provide special provision for children with learning difficulties.) And once such streams are established, the curriculum within each stream should be tailored towards the ability of the children within that stream. So, obviously, it is unreasonable to try to teach Shakespeare to a stream that is struggling with basic literacy. But, similarly, it is unreasonable, and, I’d argue, criminal, not to teach Shakespeare to the stream of the most able pupils. This is because Shakespeare is perceived to be central to the English-speaking literary canon, and one cannot consider oneself at all knowledgeable in English literature without at least some acquaintance with his works. Whether or not the children find this boring is as irrelevant a consideration as whether or not children find trigonometry boring. If children enjoy their education, that’s great; but if they don’t, that’s just tough. A civilised society has to educate its children in the values that define its civilisation. If we don’t do that, we lose something that is immensely valuable, and which, once lost, cannot be recovered.

And then, there’s the argument that being forced to study literature puts people off literature. But that argument could apply to any other subject as well, could it not? Doesn’t being forced to learn about logarithms put people off mathematics? Doesn’t being forced to learn about the Reformation put people off history? Are these arguments not to teach logarithms, or not to teach about the Reformation, in the classroom? If so, we’d end up not teaching anything at all, as it’s a rare schoolchild who actually enjoys lessons. I’m not even sure that such a schoolchild exists.

I think if someone has an inclination towards literature, they’ll come back to it, regardless of classroom experience. And if they don’t come back to it, they probably don’t have an inclination towards literature at all – and that’s fair enough: we can’t all be interested in everything. Speaking for myself, I used to say for a long time that I didn’t take part in sports because I’d been put off by PE lessons at school. But after a while, I realised this wasn’t true. Yes, I used to hate PE at school, but the truth is I wouldn’t have taken part in sport even if I had never had a PE lesson in my life, simply because I am not a sporty person. The excuse that I had been put off by the lessons was just that – an excuse, and a rather lame one at that. There are, after all, many who had suffered PE lessons with me, but who, in their adult lives, are quite happy to go for regular swims, or to play badminton, or whatever. And similarly, I think, with literature: there are a great many who have suffered English literature lessons at school, but who nonetheless have been drawn back to literature in later life, and, being older and more mature, find themselves even enjoying books that had once been a chore. And they may even find, to their surprise, that some of the things that the teacher had said in class all those years ago have stayed in the mind. At the very least, studying a Shakespeare play (or whatever) in the classroom has given them an awareness of the thing: it has become a part of their “mental furniture”. As for those who don’t return to literature – well, I suspect it’s a bit like my not returning to sports: I’m just not inclined in that direction, and there’s little point my blaming PE lessons in school for what is essentially my personal inclination.

My argument really is that we should treat literature as seriously as we do any other discipline. It’s not just a bit of “fun” to relieve the seriousness of maths or science or language lessons: it’s a serious subject, and should be taken seriously. Choosing which books to study in class based on the children’s own preference is to diminish the importance of literature as a subject, and to present it as a lighter alternative to, say, the sciences. This appears to be the path we are currently going down, and few seem to care. And why are we going down this path? Perhaps for the same reason that we are destroying our public libraries, for the same reason that arts broadcasting on television has declined so dramatically in quality: we no longer seem to have sufficient confidence in the value of our culture to think it worth propagating. 

Well, that’s how it looks from where I stand. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. And even if I’m not, there’s little I can do about it. Except, perhaps, to stand up where I can for the teaching in our schools of the best that our literary traditions have to offer. To all children of sufficient ability – whether they like it or not.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on March 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    What a good thoughtful entry!

    I am thinking about this and will get back…

    Reply

  2. Posted by alan on March 16, 2011 at 10:50 am

    The other day I went to a gallery that had Goya’s painting: “Saturn Devouring His Son”.
    For some reason this post bought that image back to me…
    But seriously, if as a society we think it reasonable to teach religion by law then why not teach literature. However, I wouldn’t examine it based on received wisdom, only upon attendance.

    Reply

    • Hello Alan, I am afraid I failed to understand any of the three references you make. I don’t see the connection between my post and Goya’s painting; I don’t understand the relevance of the teaching of religion to the argument I present above; and I certainly do not understand your reference to “received wisdom” and to “attendance”. This is not to say that your points aren’t pertinent – just that I didn’t understand them.

      Reply

  3. Posted by alan on March 27, 2011 at 1:41 am

    The image of Saturn made me think of the potential tyranny of the old.
    As to comparing the teaching of religion to the teaching of literature. My point is that it is not necessary to believe that something is good in order to teach its existence as an aspect of humanity. Also, a work exists in a context that may be vitally important to one person but not to another. The important thing is to develop the empathy to see this, and I think that exposure to literature helps to do this.
    Unlike Art, Literature in the British Schools of my (admittedly out of date) experience is taught more as a ‘Literature Appreciation’ rather than the craft of composing literature, almost as if there is something corrupting about teaching technique because of the danger of formulaic writing, which is another reason to compare it to the teaching of religion.
    Recently I read a poem by Chinua Achebe called “Beware Soul Brother”. I am not sensitive enough to poetry to know whether it is any good as poetry, but I think I understand his concerns. His concerns seem to be about how to gain the benefits of a powerful new philosophy while staying grounded in the old so as to avoid exploitation and rootlessness.
    I don’t think that I could ever intellectually, or even less likely, emotionally, grasp the dislocating effect of his native country’s interaction with Europe, short of invasion by extraterrestrials. But the advantage of literature, and even more so poetry, is that these things can be explored in a non-prescriptive way. I think that examining that exploration according to a secondary school examiner’s crude rules and time scales would take something away.

    Reply

    • Hello Alan, and thanks for that.

      Personally, I think to educate children in the best that has been thought and written is to enrich them. And yes, I do concede that this cannot be done without some degree of compulsion – “tyranny”, if you will – since no child goes to school voluntarily. But the alternative to this “tyranny” is not to educate children at all, and I don’t think that can be good either for society or, on the long run, for the children themselves.

      One may not want literature to be taught in a “prescriptive” manner, but the alternative seems to me to be not to teach it at all. Which is, effectively, where we have got to in our schools. As I told you, our daughter is now 15 and has, throughout secondary school, been in the top stream in English; and, despite attending a school that gets very good OFSTED reports, only recently has she been obliged to read a book from cover to cover. And that book is Of Mice and Men, which is a pretty good book, but a fairly straightforward one that she could easily have read some 5 or so years earlier. If this is the stage that the teaching of literature has got to in our schools, this should be a matter of great concern. The problem is that we have got to this stage, and hardly anyone is showing much concern. It seems to me that perhaps a touch more “prescription” would not be out of order.

      I haven’t read the poem by Achebe you mention, but obtaining the benefits of the new while remaining grounded in the old (my emphasis) is, I agree, a vitally important theme. But “remaining grounded in the old” is not something we can take for granted; children can only absorb from what is around them, and if we remove from their environment anything that is of cultural value (as we have done), we cannot then expect them to absorb cultural values. And I do fear that we are losing touch with cultural values because we don’t take them seriously enough.

      Once again, I am not advocating the teaching of Shakespeare to children struggling with basic literacy, but not to teach Shakespearean drama to children capable of taking it in is criminal: it is cultural vandalism.

      Literature can be explored in a non-prescriptive way, but the scope for doing so in the classroom is, I think, limited. When the children have left school and have become adults, they may, if they wish, choose to pursue in a non-prescriptive way that which had been introduced to them in a prescriptive way. Many do. And as for those who don’t, perhaps they aren’t inclined towards literature in the first place – which is fair enough. But the oft-made contention that more people would read works of literary value if literature weren’t to be taught in schools at all seems to me utter nonsense.

      It seems to me important that literature be taught at school. And I honestly can’t see any way of teaching literature (or any other subject for that matter) that doesn’t involve a degree of compulsion, of prescription.

      On the matter of teaching religion, I think I understand your point. Religion needs to be taught not as a form of indoctrination, but because so many aspects of our culture – and, indeed, of the world itself – would be incomprehensible without an understanding of the subject. But I’m not convinced that the parallels with teaching literature are that strong, as the teaching of literature, the absorption of literary values, seems to me an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

      Reply

  4. Posted by meluleki on September 20, 2012 at 10:46 am

    literature is a mirror of society and in it we find the opportunity to sit back and laugh at ourselves,appreciate our strengths.literature and man are inseparable facets.it is man at his best and man at his worst

    Reply

    • Hello meluleki,

      I agree that literature reflects what we are. It also offers us aesthetic experiences that are profoundly enriching. For all of these reasons, and more, I feel our education system has a duty to introduce children to what is an important aspect of our cultural heritage. To judge by what seems to be happening right now in state schools in UK (I can’t answer for other countries), we appear by and large not to be taking this duty very seriously.

      Reply

  5. Literature, like art, reflects the values of a culture and there is the potential for deep personal reflection when reading literature. The problem, as I see it, is literature is often taught by bibliophiles who can’t imagine what it is like being in the head of someone who hates reading fiction. The best lit teachers are the ones who help students see the reading of literature as a thinking task and learn the secrets to the ways in which literature is constructed. Then students can connect with the themes and ideas and have thoughts of their own.

    Nothing is worse to young readers than a teacher who imposes an interpretation onto a novel as the right one and then becomes self-righteously angered over students who aren’t fascinated by the ideas that fascinate them. There is a narcissism in literature education that invalidates all efforts to teach literature. It’s not about the teacher or their beliefs! It should be about helping students understand themselves within the context of culture.

    Shakespeare can resonate today because of the universality of the stories. But why must the first exposer be slogging through pages of old english with a teacher who is enthralled by everything Shakespeare so much she has a Philodendron named Hamlet? Students should experience Shakespeare as plays as intended by the author. This gives the students the opportunity to overcome the language barrier by seeing the story in context as THEY make meaning. Then the teacher can help them dive deeper as they ask questions.

    Focus on the learners and have some empathy for their perspective. If not, teaching literature becomes mere ego broadcasting of the teacher and her values. Students might as well not be there for that because at the end of the course they have just navigated another authoritarian points game and haven’t been challenged to think beyond themselves. Just thank God the class is over and, “I never want to take that class again” becomes the only take-away.

    Beyond that, If your goal is not to help students be fascinated by literature, or math, or whatever is being taught, you are wasting time and dooming what you value to irrelevant mutterings. The world is changing fast and authoritarian structures are falling apart everywhere. If literature instruction is to survive, teachers have to shift the focus and help answer the WHY on a daily basis with students and help them become fascinated with the world of ideas.

    Reply

    • Hello Tom, and welcome.

      This particular post I wrote in the very early days of the blog, mainly to let off some steam. I was expressing myself in a personal capacity, as, in my professional life, I am not involved in education. I had not expected this post to be so frequently and so widely read! however, the very sharp decline I perceive in the standard of literary education I do find concerning. We have two children, now aged 21 and 18, who have been educated in highly rated secondary schools (not private fee-paying schools) in Surrey, England; and as afar as I can see, they have not been taught literature at all. Those writers whom we may consider the backbone of English literature – Shakespeare, Keats, Austen, Dickens, Milton, Donne, Wordsworth, Hardy, George Eliot, etc. – they have’t even touched. You say:

      Nothing is worse to young readers than a teacher who imposes an interpretation onto a novel as the right one and then becomes self-righteously angered over students who aren’t fascinated by the ideas that fascinate them.

      I’d argue that not teaching them literature at all is worse. Not introducing them to the best that is available in their literary culture seems to me nothing short of criminal.

      You go on to say:

      The world is changing fast and authoritarian structures are falling apart everywhere.

      I agree, and I don’t know this is necessarily a good thing. Our age seems to me paranoid about authority: I do not believe that authority is always and necessarily a bad thing. To interpret a Shakespeare play for oneself is difficult, and requires skill; and to acquire such skill requires discipline. Of course a teacher who insists on one interpretation and one interpretation only is a bad teacher. But while there is no single correct interpretation, there are certainly many wrong ones: literary criticism is not a “free-for-all”.

      Furthermore, until a student has sufficient grasp of a Shakespeare play to be able to interpret it for his or her own self, there is an awful lot of hard work to be done. And in the course of this, the authority of a good teacher is invaluable. I’m afraid there’s much evidence around the net of people who are nowhere near close to an adequate understanding of these complex works, but who nonetheless feel confident in offering “interpretations”: the authority of a good teacher seems to me precisely what they need.

      I agree that Shakespeare certainly intended his works to be performed; but that does not imply that he did not want them to be read either. In Shakespeare’s own lifetime, many of his plays were published – sometimes in bad texts (these are believed to be pirate editions), and sometimes in good texts (the so-called “good Quartos”), which were almost certainly publications authorised by Shakespeare. Why should these texts have been published if Shakespeare had not wanted them to be read? Reading and watching his plays are both valuable experiences, and neither, I think, is a substitute for the other. And I do feel that a literature class should teach students how to read these plays. But of course, I agree that watching in good productions can be a great aid to understanding.

      Best regards,
      Himadri

      Reply

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