Why we teach literature, even when it’s provocative
- Dianne Prichard lives in DeWitt.
Not too long ago I was teaching language arts in high school – mostly literature with a little punctuation for good measure. I never knew why I was teaching literature until we had a guest speaker at an assembly – as we called them then. We called them assemblies because all the teachers and students gathered in the gymnasium, relieved of a break from routine, and happy to trade the discomfort of the desks for the discomfort of the bleachers.
Our speaker was a young man, probably an athlete, and his goal was to motivate us to face life or be better students or clean our plates. It could have been anything. We just knew that all of us, teachers and students, needed to hear something positive. It didn’t hurt that he was nice to look at.
He shared an anecdote he had heard, first-hand or fifteenth-hand; it does not matter. I would like to share this anecdote with you because it has become my modus operandi for teaching literature. In other words, I could finally justify why I was forcing students to read “On the Beach” and “Romeo and Juliet” and hundreds of other selections in a variety of genres.
Here is the story :
An American soldier was captured by the Viet Cong in the 1960s and imprisoned for several years. He was confined to a small cell, had little social, intellectual or physical nourishment. Eventually he was released and returned home. One of the first things he did was play golf with a friend. He shot a big game and the friend asked if he had been jailed in a country club.
Well, of course not. So how did he retain his excellent golf swing and ability to putt? He practiced every day he was in this sordid prison, but he practiced the only way available to him: in his head. Every day he played eighteen holes—in his head. Not in his cell, not with his hands, feet or back, but with his brain. Every day he practiced and that practice helped him maintain his game.
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This anecdote made me realize that reading literature was like training for life. My students wouldn’t make the same rash decisions as Juliet and Romeo because they had suffered the consequences—a double suicide—not in real life, but in their minds. My students would not be the last living in the world because they would already know the destructive nature of any nuclear war and they would (ideally) work to avoid it. My students would make better decisions because they had experienced, through characters of all kinds, the mistakes that lead to despair, death, betrayal. And even if my students made bad decisions, they would know how to get out of it because they had internalized the stories of Scout Finch and Hamlet. They would know people who lived by different means, like Lennie and Ponyboy and Huck Finn. They would face a dilemma with Guy Montag and Persephone.
They would know about some of the most heinous crimes committed by humans against humans, not because they had committed them, but because they had learned from Tom Robinson and Anne Frank.
They would know the injustice of life because they had learned from Tom Joad, Travis and Old Yeller.
Literature has become their protection, their guide, a means of preparing for life without having to experience racism, poverty, betrayal, violence directly.
Most of the characters I referenced live in forbidden books. What lessons can we teach each other if we hide them behind our fear of being hurt or changed or challenged?
Learning by reading, one word at a time, one chapter at a time, slowly, deliberately, imparts wisdom that is not available in the time-managed, assembly-line lifestyle of our culture.
Experience is the best teacher? I doubt. Experience does not give us time to think about how to react, how to plan. Literature – reading, hearing and even writing – gave my generation a basis for living well. Let us ensure that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren receive the same foundation. Banish censorship!
Dianne Prichard lives in DeWitt.