While working at a meeting the other day, discussing what literacy “looks like,” these questions were posed to me: “Why do we need literature anymore? How is it even relevant? What is the point of students still reading Shakespeare?”
These are not new questions, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time someone asks them of me or any other English teacher. Often people ask these things rhetorically, to get a rise or to watch me cringe and struggle to give a justification that doesn’t sound like I should be ensconced behind my desk and tomes, wearing tweed with suede elbow patches, and gesturing with a pipe. Today, however, was different. Today, this person expected, and was waiting for, an answer. Today, I was being called on to justify literature’s continued inclusion in the course of study for a 21st Century high school student.
The buzz words of today’s literacy landscape revolve around “close reading” to help students on their quest to answer “text-dependent questions” in order to help them learn the “21st Century skills” that will make them “career and college ready.” I agree with these goals: what society doesn’t need literate, thoughtful, innovative, engaged citizens? So, as I framed my answer, it occurred to me that our perspectives on what the answer to that first question of what literacy “looks like” were quite far apart but our end goal was perhaps not. I define literacy not only as the concrete skills students can put in their toolboxes for life-long use but also the intangibles they gain as well: the cultural and emotional currency if you will. Literature is at times a tough sell to a room full of teenagers but literacy cannot be solely defined as students’ ability to read a text and use textual evidence to support their answers to text-dependent questions. While I agree with the standards and agree that those skills are important, I also know that literacy is about so much more, including the often unmeasurable and messy experience of a reader interacting on a personal level with a text and connecting across a range of texts, experiences, and understandings.
With that in mind I began: Literature is a stimulus for creative thought, innovative expression of concrete and abstract ideas, language in action, language with power. By examining the power of language, we have the opportunity to struggle with the human condition in a “safe” place, wrestle with tough questions and unknowns of life…my own struggles were interrupted with a question regarding why a person would want to read about the human condition if they are living it? I realized at that moment we had larger misconceptions at work here. Literature is not fluff; it is not a filler. Literature is not a series of novels, poetry, and short stories “done” simply for the reason of filling four credits for graduation. Literature allows for difficult or uncomfortable conversations from many different points of view, life experiences, minds. Literature allows exploration of challenging times and places many students will probably never see or truly know but can engage in vicariously and in turn gain an understanding of or at least an appreciation for standing in someone else’s shoes.
How is literature still a relevant part of the literacy conversation?
I offer this response from a student as our class wrestled with Milton’s Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s Epistle 1 of his Essay on Man. The class had been discussing the ideas of free will and predestination, and why humankind is so fascinate with explaining why things in the world are the way they are. A student had asked: “Why does this really matter today?” Her classmate replied:
“It matters. We live in a world of why and we constantly search for the why in everything. We don’t live in a world as simple as what, when, and where. These people help us think. They show us that there may not be any answers or we may not be able to completely understand the possible answers but we can still ask.”
I know the vast majority of my students, including the young man who responded, are not going on to be English majors but they are going on to be citizens in a society that while technologically advanced and centered around instantaneous entertainment and vast amounts of information at their fingertips still holds on to remnants of traditions, allusions, and social expectations that require a common ground most often found preserved in literature and history. Literature still matters; it teaches us that it is okay to ask the questions that the universe may not answer. It teaches us empathy and how to be unsure and uncomfortable in our own skin. It makes us better people for having asked the questions and pondered the possibilities.
Why do you read?