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 They should have a chance to read ancient mathematical proofs, musical scores, biographies, letters, historical documents, and more.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.