Why Give Literature an Honored Place in School?

In education discussion and elsewhere, the terms “literature,” “fiction,” and “nonfiction” get jumbled up a bit. I jumble them too—I catch myself talking about “literature vs. nonfiction,” for instance, knowing that there’s overlap between the two. The term “literature” refers to works with lasting artistic merit (except when one is talking about the “literature” on a given topic). Artistic merit is difficult to define, but it involves a certain transcendence as well as mastery. A literary work goes beyond literal meaning; it has hints, metaphors, paradoxes, juxtapositions, ironies. It takes us a bit beyond the information that it presents. Moby-Dick may teach us a thing or two about whales, but that’s only part of what it does.

In that sense, the push for more and more “nonfiction” in classrooms (for instance, through the Common Core Standards) does threaten literature instruction. Those pushing for more “nonfiction” rarely have Emerson, Buber, or Kierkegaard in mind—works that tease us with possibilities. They want students to read argumentative pieces and informational reports: that is, works with a clear thesis supported by evidence. Of course it’s important for students to read such works; the problem lies in privileging them: in hinting, through one mandate after another, that informational text is more useful than literature (for college and career preparation) and therefore more valuable.

“But no one’s saying that!” some will protest. “No one said that informational text was to come at the expense of literature. The ELA standards apply to all of the subjects, not to English class alone.” Well, if this were so, English teachers would not be getting directives to include much more informational text in their curricula. New York State would not be considering a proposal to require high school students to write a research paper (for English class) that draws on at least four informational texts. Make no mistake: the push is for informational text. And it’s destructive as well as misguided.

Should students be reading informational nonfiction? Of course—but they don’t have to do this in English class. From elementary school onward, they should read on scientific, historical, and other topics. They should have a chance to read ancient mathematical proofs, musical scores, biographies, letters, historical documents, and more. Where should this take place? In the most appropriate classes. At times, students might read a work of fiction for history, or study a song for English. In the early elementary years, some of the courses may be combined into “literacy blocks”—so that students may find themselves reading poetry and historical narratives in the same class. But overall, each course should have readings for its domain—and English class should be the place for literary works.

An English course in expository writing might be an exception here. If a school’s English department offered a specific course in writing a research paper, then the other English courses wouldn’t have to be eroded. My high school had such a course—and many students reported years later that it was the most important course they took. Nonetheless, the other English courses were devoted to literature, excellent literature, and no one apologized for that. It was in middle and high school that I first read Sophocles, Euripides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Hardy, Faulkner, O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, and others. No one doubted that such works were important; no one suggested that we were deficient in information. (We read a range of historical works and wrote research papers for history class.)

Now, there are big gaps in my education, including my literary education, but I found myself prepared not only for college, not only for a range of workplaces (even in the 21st century), but for a life that I want to lead, a life that involves pondering words, listening to music, and sifting through thoughts. I was not prepared in all ways, but who can be? Either one enters predictable situations with skills and knowledge to match them, or one enters the unknown, with the risk that one may not always know what to do. Who on earth would want the former? I’ll take the uncertainty and the risk any day, again and again. That said, one shouldn’t be foolhardy about risks; one shouldn’t enter the adult world defenseless. I have been foolhardy at times, defenseless at times, but not in relation to academic or vocational knowledge. I had what I needed in order to learn more; I had, moreover, a store of things to recall and reread.

Reminiscence aside, what is at stake here? Why stick one’s neck out for literature? It isn’t always beautiful (beauty is a complex topic), meaningful (try to find a stable meaning in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), or even likable (I find 100 Years of Solitude irritating at times). It is easy to slip into sentimentality about literature, but sentimentality is not the point. Literature deserves an honored place in schools for many reasons, including its ability to open up areas of life that we might not otherwise face. There is room in it for bravery and uncertainty. When reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one does not have to be snappy and polished; one does not have to put on a good face or rattle off talking points. One can roam for a while in the lovely and perplexing mess. (It isn’t mess itself, by any means–but it allows for a bit of the messy, and takes us out of the realm of the pat.)

Today’s students learn skills like “speed networking”—making a quick, flawless impression. What they don’t learn, often, is the practice of mulling, of staying with something they don’t immediately understand, and of allowing themselves their own mysteries too, and allowing themselves time. Not all students have lost this; some know how to sit with uncertainty, difficulty, questions, pain. Sadly, these very students get faulted for being “off-task,” since the tasks have become quick and shallow. Our priorities have gone off kilter; things that can keep us mindful and soulful get shorter and shorter shrift.

 

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Teaching the Underground

undergroundOne aspect of teaching that rarely gets discussed (on blogs and in education news) is the intellectual and ethical challenge of taking students through a complex work like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I find myself turning lessons in my mind, asking myself what to bring out, what questions to ask, what background to provide, what comparisons to draw. This would be the case with just about any lesson—but with Notes from Underground it’s particularly important, as the work is easy to misunderstand in one way or another. Once the basic understanding is there, it’s possible to appreciate the work’s paradox and play on the one hand and its serious moral questions on the other.

Its narrator and protagonist, the “Underground Man,” lives alone in a dingy Petersburg apartment, from which he does not emerge. He writes and writes, in some sense baring his starkest truths, in some sense fooling the reader. He rails against the formulas that others embrace, formulas for a perfect society or even a reasonable one. No perfection, no happiness, he insists, matters as much to man as his own free will—and for that reason he will knock down any structure and deny any equation, even if in doing so he only harms himself. The Underground Man seems to rebel against formulas and final answers, yet he clings to his own formula, a formula of negation. In the second part, we learn how he landed there; we learn something about his life and actions before his retreat. (I won’t reveal what he tells—but it isn’t comforting.)

A reader of Notes from Underground can easily fall into one of two traps. One error is to judge him without any kind of compassion or identification—to say, “I’m not like that; that man is messed up” and be done with it. The other is to identify with him completely—to see him as a reflection of the hidden self. While this error is a bit more fruitful than the first, it’s still an error, if the reader does not recognize the Underground Man’s responsibility for his condition. To grasp the Underground Man, one must bring both compassion and judgment, both identification and distance. The proportions are difficult to determine (and will vary from person to person and from reading to reading), but both elements need to be there, if the work is to come through. (Other elements need to be there as well; one needs to be able to hear his tones, jokes, allusions, and much more.)

Isn’t that one of our ethical challenges in general—to determine the right mixture of judgment and compassion? Too much judgment without compassion, and you write the person (or work) off. Too much compassion (if that’s the word—I’m not quite satisfied) without judgment, and you neglect the person’s free will and choices. Yet there is no perfect ratio; it shifts from moment to moment and from situation to situation. Nor can it be calculated; one must find it through experience, teachers, and instinct.

From what I have seen, it is more common for students to write the Underground Man off than to see themselves in him. This is partly because introspection gets short shrift today. These kids have been brought up to think in terms of success and achievement, not in terms of understanding human nature. That’s an oversimplification, though; many do understand something of the Underground Man; many do see aspects of themselves, and a few have even found a combination of judgment and compassion. In any case, both extremes have dangers.

The first time I read Notes from Underground, at age eighteen, I couldn’t separate myself from him (until part 2). I thought I was him—and was horrified. Years later, I approached him from a distance and found him very funny. In between, I have had mixtures of responses. Today I see a great deal of the Underground Man in myself but understand, also, how important the differences are. I am not advocating “text-to-self connections”—but Dostoevsky clearly wants us to ask who this Underground Man is and how he might reflect us.

There’s a lot at stake in reading Notes from Underground properly, yet there is no “proper” reading. There is only alertness and avoidance of pitfalls. Or, rather, there’s much more, but it can’t be taught directly, just as one can’t be taught to understand another person.

These are the thoughts that occupy a good deal of my day, when I’m not scrambling to get things done. It matters to teach this work well; that, in turn, is not just a question of bringing out key themes, devices, etc., but involves careful reading, a good understanding of the students, an understanding (when possible) of the original Russian, and a strong ethical and aesthetic sense. It involves a great responsibility: you have to be a good guide to take students into the underground and out again. In short, it requires a good chunk of all that I have and am—including the ability to put myself aside as we focus on the work.

I wish policymakers (of various kinds) had an inkling of this aspect of teaching. It seems completely forgotten, except in nooks of the education world. It’s as though “content” didn’t demand one’s soul, intellect, and conscience, as though you could teach it “effectively” without vitality. No wonder so much work gets piled on teachers; few realize that to teach well, one must be willing to leave the busyness behind, to take a long walk, attend a concert*, or read a book slowly, in order to be shaken into life, the life inside and outside of books, the jumbled, mistake-ridden life that, even at its most perplexing, has room for courage and grace.

*Concert: On Friday I attended the Wingdale Community Singers’ record release show for their new album, Night Sleep Death. A gorgeous performance. The title(-ish) song brings together two Walt Whitman poems, A Clear Midnight” and “O Living Always–Always Dying.”

Neither Crystal Palace Nor Underground

Last week I had the joy of publishing an article featuring three students’ pieces. Each piece has distinct ideas, approach, and personality; none of the three would fit a rubric exactly. All deal with philosophical ideas and texts; whether witty, serious, or both, all grapple with something substantial.

Call it spark, verve, or individuality, I hope my students never lose this quality. Our schools and workplaces live by the rubric. Even when a school sees beyond the rubric, as mine does, it must prepare students for the rubrics of tests. Students know exactly what is expected of them and learn to fulfill it exactly. They know they will get five points for doing this, ten points for doing that.

What rubrics offer is predictability and fairness. A student who receives a B knows why, and knows what to do to get an A. (There should always be some degree of that; grading should not be haphazard.) Yet rubrics take a great deal away. They come across as supreme judges, when they are mediocre ones; they miss what really matters in a piece—the genuine grappling, among other things. I do not mean they should be abolished; of course they have a place, but they should not be ultimate arbiters.

I have scored tests and have seen how students who follow the directions exactly (but say very little) can score higher than students  who have a great deal to say but fail to follow all of the directions. Indeed, when one follows such rubrics, one is forced to disregard what a student says.

In many ways the world of rubrics is analogous to the very crystal palace that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man criticizes. Here is the telling passage (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Michael Katz):

You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.

Don’t you see: if it were a chicken coop instead of a palace, and if it should rain, then perhaps I could crawl into it so as not to get drenched; but I would still not mistake a chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude, just because it sheltered me from the rain. You’re laughing, you’re even saying that in this case there’s no difference between a chicken coop and a mansion. Yes, I reply, if the only reason for living is to keep from getting drenched.

Today’s students live in a chicken coop of rubric after rubric. They learn to be well-rounded superstars—leaders, go-getters, initiators, networkers, and, sure, students with GPAs of 4.0. They build up digital portfolios and resumes. They know what the colleges want and plan years in advance to achieve it. A wise person remarked to me this week, “They not only have no room for eccentricity; they have no room to pause.”

You need to pause in order to write an interesting piece, to have a good friend, to understand a piece of music. You need it to find a way of living that is neither crystal palace nor underground, a chant or song with lilts and cracks and silences. Yes, you need to learn to survive and compete, but you need not bow to the terms of such demands.

My birthday is a week from Thursday. I dedicate it to such a way of living, and to the hope that my students will find it on their own terms or, having already found it, not lose sight of it.