Thursday, November 04, 2010

I Have A Question: Why Teach English Literature?

A few years back, I learned that in the nineteenth century American schools made the switch from teaching rhetoric to teaching English literature in order to deal with Anglo-Americans' fears regarding large numbers of recent immigrants. Instead of teaching the children of immigrants how to use the English language, America would teach them to be Anglo-American by forcefeeding them reverance for Anglo-American (mainly anglo) literature. I know that sounds a bit hostile, but I heard it from an Italian-American English professor who was nowhere near old enough to have lived through that period but was definitely bitter nonetheless.

I must admit, I was shaken to think that I had spent my college years majoring in a field that was created to control my grandparents and my father and his siblings. But, hey, Dad, Uncle Isidore, and all but one of my aunts beat the system! They all dropped out of the American school system before high school! There was no controlling them! Booyah!

My question is, why do we teach English literature, particularly on the high school level, these days? Are we still trying to teach respect for the "correct" literature? Maintain and improve reading skills to prepare literate citizens who can read about and comprehend issues and thus make educated, informed choices at the voting booth? Encourage life-long reading for both personal and professional enrichment?

Think about this and get back to me.

4 comments:

Trude Witham said...

That is a very good question. I know that in high school, I had to read classics like Shakespeare, but I also read Russian literature and of course American literature. In college, I took a course in black literature, reading the great works of America's afro-american writers. So, I never felt that there was a bias or emphasis on English literature.

gail said...

Did you learn something from reading any of that that was so valuable that it justified studying any kind of literature?

What was the point?

Oh, dear. Do I sound as if I'm suffering some sort of existential crisis?

Flo said...

1. Salvation: The ability to read literature means one has the ability to read the Bible, and hence to save one’s soul. OK, this may sound dated now, but it used to have heft….
2. Survival: People need a basic level of facility with reading, writing and speaking English in order to survive in the present economy, and a good way to get those skills is by reading writers skilled in using the language. Plus, a passing acquaintance with matters literary can create a good impression on those with the power to hire, promote and demote.
3. Critical thinking: Literature provides a basis for thinking about and criticizing society. In my high school, everyone read “1984” (critical of communism) and “Brave New World” (critical of capitalism).
4. Imagination: Literature exercises the imagination, through the reader’s transforming of words on a page into pictures within the mind. This is one of those abstract-good things – promotes individuality and all that, since everyone sees different pictures when they read….
5. Entertainment: People have a lifelong need for good stories, and literature fills that need (as do movies and TV).

gail said...

Flo, Actually, I believe that your 1st point is the reason that Puritan New England was the most literate society the world had seen up to that point. At least, that's what I've heard.

2,3, and 4 are good points. Now the question is, what types of reading should pre-college level students be doing in order to learn how to survive, and to use critical thinking and imagination? I question whether or not it needs to be a particular literary canon.