Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reading Literature through Themes

I like this concept of using literature to treat Big Questions.    The topics mentioned are 1. Individual and Society 2. Facing Adversity 3. In Search of Identity 4.  Truth and Justice.   They each come with a set of questions.   Presumably you read the books and this gives you grounds for thinking and talking about these questions through a literary perspective.  They seem perhaps subjectively focused, except the last one, but they also seem like good starting points for talking about things that are important to the high school age group as they grow into adulthood and have to figure out how to live good lives.

In many ways literature is a precursor for philosophy, and so approaching it from that perspective seems developmentally much more appropriate than the dry and somewhat out-dated analytic method too often brought down from post-graduate lit in diluted form to the middle and high school.

Plutarch says

Wherefore those that would give their minds to philosophical studies are not obliged to avoid poetry altogether, but rather to prepare themselves for philosophy by poems, accustoming themselves to search for and embrace that which may profit in that which pleaseth them, and rejecting and discarding that wherein they find nothing of this nature. For this discrimination is the first step to learning.

But of the specific literature suggestions of the public charter school mentioned, some are simply bemusing when we are talking about 15 year olds.   It seems to presume that they already have enough maturity and experience to deal with material that is meant to shock adults into thought and understanding.   Teens are certainly capable of dealing with ambiguity, but they are also easily pulled into vivid subjectivity, and their thought processes can be co-opted by the subjective intensity of a book.  For example, if you read 1984, I think the take-away for a typical teen would be the impression that individuals can't stand up to a total society, and that really, they don't deserve to because they can't even live coherent lives.   Whereas Animal Farm, though the message is similarly disheartening, the fable format allows more of a detached and thoughtful consideration of the modern totalitarian society.... important for a teenager, but important not to be disproportionately swayed by what you might call the "accidents" of the literary effect.

Too many of the books on that list seem to be disproportionate in that sense, when you are speaking of a relatively immature readership.     Though the more modern and controversial2 books on the list relate to modern dilemmas, the child does not have the historical or literary perspective to grapple with them as literature, which increases the likelihood that he will comprehend them in a distorted way.

Flannery O'Connor writes:

I would to put forward the proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them.

I have Mortimer Adler's book Six Great Ideas (haven't read it yet) and I know that he discusses 102 Great Ideas that come up again and again through literature (literature being broadly defined as all the Great Books, including the non-fictional ones).   

I suppose a Great Idea approach to literature has a possibility of becoming too simplistic "How does this book portray Justice?"  but at the same time it does seem to deal with what you are left with after you read a book -- how it embodies certain concepts of the big ideas.

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I would love to hear your thoughts on this!