Why do we Teach literature?
1.Literature offers the best way of teaching extensive reading skills.
Non-literature reading programs, and especially programs for non-native speakers, focus on short passages. Big international
surveys such as PISA (or tests of basic skills) are based on many readings of very short passages. Yet extensive reading is
a different kettle of fish. To read something longer, you need to stay aware of macrostructures such as plot.
2. Literature offers a way of linking the emotional
with the intellectual. If students are to learn reading effectively, they have to remember significant turns in plot,
and this will only happen, in the first instance, if those turns have emotional impact. So it harnesses the emotional to the
cognitive. When literature does what it should, though, it acts against the alienation of the emotional and the intellectual.
3. Literature teaches values with emotional force.
To take an American example, To Kill a Mockingbird is at once a condemnation of America, and a celebration of an
archetypal American hero: the man who stands up to defy his whole community in defence of what's right (the same character
as John Proctor of The Crucible, in a way). Khaled Hosseini does something similar in A Thousand Splendid
Suns when Mariam stands up to accept her death in defence of her co-wife and her co-wife's children. Students need to
feel the force of these things, or values will not be strong in their lives--but they also need to be able to defend themselves.
There's nothing about literature that says it always has to be moral. Many people think that the Yugoslav war comes down in
part to poetry, to the sort of thing Serbian students learned in school. Karadzic is an expert on folk ballads.
4. Literature has the power to change destructive ways
of thinking on many levels. In my life, poetry has been a wonderful thing. When your emotions bear down on you to
see the world in a negative light, and believe that it's not you, it's just real, at a time like that, you need something
as powerful as poetry. It can crystalize what you feel at that moment, or it can transform it into something better. I believe
in memorizing poetry. If you memorize a poem, it will become a part of your emotional structure, and it can only do that because
its structure is unyielding. It will not give, and that's why it is worth it to you. When I was in teachers' college in Montreal
in 1983, I read George Gabori's wonderful book When Evils Were Most Free. He was a political prisoner in Stalinist
Hungary. When he was in solitary confinement, he exercised his mind by trying to remember all the poetry he ever knew. He
says by the time he got out, he could recite for eight hours at a stretch without repeating himself. That is how important
5. Literature is about reality. Some
of you out there have probably read deconstructionist criticism from the eighties that goes on about literature being only
about itself. What nonsense. Literature is about itself in so far as it is a self-contained system. But so is mathematics,
and yet the bridges built by mathematical calculation stay up. "Poems are imaginary gardens with real frogs in them." Who
( from " Why We Need Literature in Education by Matthew