Monday, October 6, 2008

Teaching Literature

I was looking through a high school literature text yesterday and was stunned by the contents. In one year, the text whips through 25 short stories, 3 plays, 5 biographies, 12 essays, 48 poems, stories from 7 epics, and 2 novels; the content ranges from Annie Dillard to Sophocles to Basho to Shakespeare to Sundiata, in a whirlwind of centuries and continents. All that's missing is meaningful context. This is literature free-floating, untethered from the people and places and times that created it. The emphasis on strictly formal aspects is, I suppose, just a different way of looking at literature, and the best literature is still worth reading without context; but it seems to me that once stripped of the culture in which it was created, most literature loses much of its meaning and power.

I prefer to teach literature in context, so that the stories inform the study of history and culture, while the history clarifies and enriches the stories. Basho's haiku illustrate the medieval Japanese aesthetic, and the aesthetic explains the haiku; in a vacuum, the haiku is just pretty words. Plato's scheme to take children away from their parents and raise them communally makes sense now that I know that in his time, scheming parents maneuvering to position their children well were a major threat to the stability of Athens. Literature gains immensely in power when the context is known, even imperfectly.

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