Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why Teach Literature: #2 Humanity

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

Young humans routinely work on the oldest questions.How can I fully be my best realm self? How does the world work, and how is one supposed to be in it?

These questions appear in a million different guises, many of them not obviously deep or profound. What should I wear today? Who will I sit with at lunch? Is it okay if laugh at that? Is it not normal that I'm not interested in that? If people know this about me, will they hate me? Am I ever going to find someone with whom I can share a special connection? Am I weird?

Reading provides students with an opportunity to see beyond their immediate surroundings, where everything they know about the world, about being human, even about themselves, is taught to them by a small group of peers and a limited number of adults. Reading shows therm other people, other cultures, other worlds, other ways of being. Reading shows what it has meant to be human in other times and places.

Reading illuminates the debates about all these issues. Authors make their case for a world of mutual support or dog eat dog competition. Authors argue for the importance of just one person or the value of the collective. Authors try to capture what it means to be a friend or parent, what it means to love somebody. And one of the beauties is that there are a wide range of arguments being made. My beat was mostly US literature, and we cycled through the many different views of the world, from Puritans through Romantics and Realists and Modernists, and as the year progressed, we could talk about each while comparing and contrasting what they believed was true and right (and if they even believed in "true" and "right"). This allows a richness in discussion that was fed directly by whatever concerns the students brought into my classroom.

It should be said, too, that to teach this stuff, you have to do the work. As you slide into each work, you have to really get what that author sees about the world, why they see what they see. Somehow you have to slide from one worldview into another so that you can teach one clearly. Multiple times a year, my students would hear this from me: "I'm not here to tell you these folks were right or that they were wrong, but I want you to see clearly how they saw their world. Whether you accept it or reject it for your own life is your own choice."

Doing the work also means examining your own biases and beliefs, your own ideas about how the world works and how to be human in it. If you are cruising on autopilot, you can't do this aspect of literature justice. Thoreau says to live deliberately, and that applies here, even if you think he was generally full of it. This means that sometimes whatever particular issue you're wrestling with may leak into your classroom. That's okay. And you can be honest about it (without letting the leak become a swamp that sweeps your whole class away). It's part of the modeling, the teaching.

Teachers of literature are often drawn to the language, the words, the structure of how they're put together, which words are chosen. Spotting meter and rhythm, moving phraseology, figures of speech, all that fun stuff. And it has value. But the teacher c an't drift over the line to where you're teaching your students that the literature is just a particular bunch of words on the page. The words mean something, tell us something.

And students will regularly raise the question, as you probe and analyze, "What makes you think the author was trying to say anything except what the words literally say?" The fair answer is that we don't, and that the author may have just been trying to tell a story the best way he knew how. That doesn't matter. Intentionally or not,  the author embedded beliefs about humanity and the world in the work, because no writer sits down and says, "I'm going to deliberately write about people who don't act like people set in a world that doesn't work like the world." Even writers of bad trash, who do both of those things, don't think that's what they're doing.

The beauty--well, one beauty-- of literature is that it can make a rich spectrum of human experience available and accessible to anybody who can get their hands on the printed (or screen-projected) word. We are the only animal that can learn from other peoples' experiences, or from imaginary experiences. We get to be on the receiving end of authors who are trying to somehow capture something true about existence in a string of words. Which is, in itself, something to grasp about being fully human in the world.

The high-stakes testing regime stands against all of this, with their assumption that there is only one right way to read any work of literature, coupled with their belief that one can clip out a few paragraphs and absorb them quickly, while the clock ticks, and select that one true view. It's a narrow, cheap view of literature and, by extension, of the humanity it contains.

Literature's humanity is also short- changed by the reading skills crowd that sees reading as just a bucket in which to carry context-free skills like making inferences or using context clues, as if these skills can exist divorced from any content or understanding. The suggestion is that the important part of being a human in the world is not to know things, but to do things, specifically things that someone else values enough to pay you for the doing. This is not a very rich view of humanity, either.

So teach literature so that students can see the full breadth and depth of the answers about the world and being human in it, and in the seeing, get a better sense of what their best selves look like.

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