How and Why Do We Teach Literature?

Many of you are working with middle schoolers and high schoolers in the Language Arts area.  You’re moving into thatbook_open_295870
strange territory known as “Literature.”  You are attempting to teach literature so that your kids will be well read and well rounded.  But what does it actually mean to “teach” literature?  Do you choose books that your kids like?  Do you choose them because they’re famous and you’ve been told that this book is a part of “everyone’s education”?  Do you teach books which reinforce your family’s moral code and avoid those which don’t?  And once you’ve chosen a book to “teach,” how do you do that?

Believe me, as a secondary English teacher with 34 years’ experience, I’ve struggled with these questions, and I know many, many other teachers who have done likewise.  So you’re certainly not alone!  I actually began to ask myself these questions before I ever became a teacher, when I was a senior in college.  I was an English major, and so I read a LOT of stuff.  I read novels and plays and poetry and essays, but one day I asked myself, “What’s the point?”  It’s not as if I didn’t enjoy it because I did.  But why were we told that we must read this stuff?  Was there some great list in the sky somewhere and we were just checking items off?  Was it a contest to see who read the greatest number of books before he died?  Was it just so we could “hold our own” at dinner parties and watching Jeopardy?

Then one day one of my English professors delivered a lecture which, literally, changed the direction of my life.  He told us that the literature of Western culture is one long argument.  If you understand the two sides of this argument, you can track the path of it through the ages by reading our literature.  At some times in our history, one side of the argument has prevailed.  At other times, the other side is on the ascendant.  There were some parts of this argument which my professor didn’t have fully fleshed out, but it was nonetheless a great eye-opener for me.

Over the past 45 years I have thought about, read about, and taught about this idea.  It has formed the way I look at not only literature, but the way I judge many current controversies in our lives.  I believe I’ve worked out how to describe the two sides of the argument and how it’s progressed through the ages.  Having explained this to 8th graders, I’ve developed a way to talk about some pretty complex ideas so that anyone can understand them.  

So I’m writing a book, the working title of which is The Eternal Argument.  I’m so excited about coming to Spartanburg in March so that, for the first time ever, I can share what I’ve thought about and am writing about with you.  I’ll be doing two talks; the first one is called “A Framework for Understanding Literature”and the second is called “The History of the World in One Hour.”  I hope you’ll be able to come to both workshops.  

I promise you that you’ll come away with ideas and techniques which you’ll be able to put to use immediately with your secondary student.  If your children are not yet at that age, I think you’ll still find the ideas intriguing.  I hope I’ll be able to help you with your choice of books and how to go about teaching them.  Your family dinner table conversations will be different from now on!

Submitted by Robin Finley of Analytical Grammar. You can hear Robin present these workshops at Teach Them Diligently Convention, March 15-17, 2012