I Don’t Know How To Teach Literature
No, that’s not accurate. I can sling the terms around with the best of them: irony, theme, protagonist, point of view…. More difficult, and what I’ve found myself puzzling about over the course of the past week is the question of how I would “teach” kids to tell the difference between literature and its bastard cousins, fiction, popular fiction, or young adult fiction.
One is enjoying a popular resurgence but is secretly scorned by the “truly” educated. One relies on lists in the New York Times Book Review section. One is definitely better than all the rest. But how do I teach kids the difference? How do I teach the difference to kids who
don’t like to read? Who read below grade level? Who maybe don’t know how to read at all? For the last three groups, does it matter? Why?
I think it does matter in some ways. I’ve never forgotten a Black activist professor saying he would want his kids to know the canon because those books are the culture of the elite and he would want his kids to know the language and culture of power. Entire college curricula are formed about the great books of Western civilization. At an NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference not long ago, I overheard a leader in the field declare, “English is the last bastion against barbarianism.”
Certainly the beliefs of 19th century British aristocrat and cultural critic Benjamin Arnold traveled the Atlantic to shape the curricular priorities U.S. secondary schools. Literature, according to Benjamin, begets a love of beauty and truth, draws on essential truths, and is central to the life of ideas. It will civilize the “next generation of the lower class” (Willinsky, 1990, p. 358). Benjamin argued that what would assist the nation in finding its “best self” (Willinsky, 1990, p. 358) was a literary canon.
Of course, those best qualified to determine that canon were the educated elite. Consider the emphasis on close reading in the Common Core, a vestige of the New Critical perspective that reading literature must be a systematic process, one which could ultimately determine quality and value in a work of art.
So when I walk into a “failing” school, with reading test scores in the basement and a dropout rate that matches the graduation rate of schools deemed to be pretty good, the ghosts of this past float behind me. Many ELA teachers are at the front of the room, bravely tying works of literature to a chair and flogging them to get at the truth (do you know the poem of Billy Collins?).
I don’t know how to teach kids to tell the difference between literature and everything else. Because isn’t that the point? To get them to read the “right” stuff the “right” way? I read lots of stuff. Sometimes literature. Sometimes crap– murder mysteries FTW! (Ha– even that judgement smacks of the insinuations that there are barbarians at the gate. Surely it is barbarians who perpetuate “crap”. )
But with some books, something different happens in my brain, my heart. After I finish them, it takes me days, sometimes more than a week, to be ready to let go of them, move on to something else. And then, it’s often to something more “popular.” (Murder mysteries! A YA novel!) Something in me is a little different. Am I more humane? (Isn’t the promise of humaneness the argument for teaching literature?) (Hello Matthew Arnold!) I don’t think so. I just love to read.
Do kids need to know how to tell the difference? Why? And if so, how do I teach them to do it?
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