Literature Is Dead; Long Live Reading!

Over the course of several entries on this blog, I’ve called into question the value of traditional approaches to teaching literature. My objection has been two-fold:

  1. It’s a shame to ruin perfectly good literature by force-feeding it to students. Worse, doing so inspires in those students a distaste for reading, so they’ll avoid other good literature in the future.
  2. The choice of texts is always motivated by agendas imposed both by cultural assumptions (”Everyone should experience Anne Frank’s story”) and market forces (”Our competitors include ‘Flowers for Algernon’ in their texts, so we can’t afford not to”).

As we travel forward into the Information Age, both of these objections become increasingly significant.

We can’t afford to persuade anyone—not anyone—that reading is dull or onerous. The Information Age depends predominantly upon reading—an active, engaged investigation of collected human knowledge. No one can learn or understand all that collected knowledge, so what is essential is the ability to find what is applicable to the current task, to “mashup” concepts and details in new ways for new insights.

Nor can we assume that a few specific texts will convey a cultural unity the way they once did. The world is growing too small for regionalism. Tomorrow’s citizens—today’s students—must have the skills to recognize a difference of understanding/opinion between themselves and whomever they might meet (from next-door neighbor to a blogger from halfway around the world), to investigate the reasons for that difference, and to use the gathered information to bridge the gap between them.

Notice how similar are the required skills described in both of the previous paragraphs.

Now, having said all that, I’ll make one concession. There is nothing wrong with a teacher introducing a class to a piece of literature of his/her choice—as a fellow reader in a workshop environment. Literature is meant to be shared, as one friend to another.

It just isn’t meant to be imposed, like a regent to his/her subjects.

—Les

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