[originally published here in February of 2010] One of my colleagues, (and, I'm proud to say, my former student teacher) Sam Cornelius, has given me a homework assignment. He found this piece by Nancy Atwell, "A Case for Literature" and assigned me to weigh in. Atwell's concern is that the powerful forces pushing for national curriculum changes do not recognize the merits of reading literature because it does not satisfy their interests in profiting from more expensive curricula, more expensive testing, etc. She cites some research that shows that independently reading literature, and lots of it, not only increases reading proficiency, but is one of the best predictors of over-all academic success. At first glance, this is preaching to the choir, and I don't know how I'm going to satisfy Sam's assignment.
Luckily, the very first commenter on the comment page, Tomliamlynch, after claiming to agree with Atwell, writes, "English education has never had a convincing rationale for teaching literature; thank heaven for writing, as at least a teacher knows when a student does it! Literature has always been--and continues to be--use-less: it doesn't have a clear use that translates into a value for non-literature-teachers... Teachers don't know if and when students really read. They can't know; reading is wonderfully private."
First of all, we don't teach literature for its own sake. Literature, on one level, is entertainment, just like films or music or any other art. We wouldn't expose a student to a famous painting just so they can say they've seen it. Similarly, when I teach a book (or a film, or a short story) my focus is always beyond the text itself. Now, that work of art can do many things, and I'm hesitant to tier them because they're all important, so these are not in a particular order.
Literature, like any art, teaches its appreciators how to participate in that art in the future. Tomliamlynch alludes to this by making a connection to writing, and that's certainly one part of the value. Reading makes students better writers. But if that were the limit, that a piece of literature might allow a student to become a professional novelist someday, we would be devoting far too much time to prepare such a tiny fraction of the population that we would be criminally negligent. But reading literature not only allows a student to participate in the art form as a creator, but as a different kind of consumer. Beyond simple comprehension (essential, but merely foundational) a reader of literature learns to make connections between a work and other works in that medium, in other media, in their own lives, in their culture, and across cultures. A bad reader can understand that Jack and Jill go up the hill to fetch a pail of water. A good reader asks why these two children are going up to get a resource that's usually found at a lower elevation, what the task says about their socioeconomic level, what the pairing might imply about a familial or romantic relationship, what the language might tell us about the time frame, how this might be different in another country, culture, or time, and what this might relate to in the reader's own life. These processes might be private if the student is reading at home, and eventually I want my students to be able to do this on their own, but as a teacher it is my role to make sure these processes are public, conscious, and intentional.
These skills are not useful in some tiny, compartmentalized way. Last night I was sitting with a couple dear friends arguing about the TV show Lost. All of the language we were using came directly from specific and targeted instruction provided by out English teachers. But these skills don't just allow us to interpret other art. They allow us to interpret Narrative with a capital "N." Whether I'm trying to follow the story of the debacle of the health care bill making its way through the Congress, or studying the way The Big Bang produces a singularity, then energy and time, then later matter, or the process by which the used car salesman evaluates his costs and benefits as he negotiates with me over the price of a '91 Isuzu, I need to be able to interpret a narrative.
Which brings us to the greatest virtue of literature (I know I said I wouldn't tier these, but I lied): We are stories. In fact, we are stories within stories within stories all the way down. If I can't understand the arc of a plot, the influence of a character, the consequence of a choice, the vagaries of fate or coincidence, then I cannot understand myself, my family, my faith, my community, my culture, my country, my world, or my universe. Try teaching history without narrative. Every discipline has a history. For that matter, try successfully teaching science without narrative (imagine teaching the water cycle without sequence). The skills one acquires when learning how to interpret literature cross over into every other field. In fact, if there is some kind of brain injury or developmental disorder which prevents a person from understanding all stories, I would bet that person also cannot be successful in any other field. (Somebody do some research on this for me.)
It should also come as no surprise, consequently, that people who do not know the same stories have trouble relating. Our culture is a composition of our stories. On the surface it just might seem like a person can't get the clever jokes on The Simpsons, or some off-hand Biblical allusion tossed out in a conversation. But it goes far deeper: If a person doesn't know the same stories, they can't understand another person, validate (or even fully respect) their decisions, or work effectively with them toward a common goal. Find two people in a crisis situation working toward some shared goal at the base of Maslow's hierarchy (a subsistence farmer in a third world country and the Peace Corps volunteer who's come to help provide emergency relief) and I'll bet you'll find two people telling each other stories. They are interpreting each other's literature, because if they don't they will only understand even the most basic needs from their own cultural contexts, and they will not be able to make larger plans or connections.
This sounds hyperbolic, but without narrative we cannot make meaning of our life experience. In short, without stories, life is meaningless. The more stories we are exposed to, and the more skilled we become at interpreting those stories, the more meaning we can make.
Education without literature (on paper, encoded digitally, filmed, etc.) is not only diminished; it's pointless.