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Thread: English literature at school: why exactly is it taught?

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    English literature at school: why exactly is it taught?

    I did not appreciate being required to study literature at school. There were books I did enjoy reading, but not those we had to do at school. I could not see the point of it. It seemed to me that schools were trying to indoctrinate pupils as to what books they should enjoy reading. I did not insist that the teachers listen to The Cure or watch The Young Ones, so why should I have to read poems about daffodils or C19th romantic fiction?

    So, what is the point of studying English Literature at school? Presumably it is not about imposing taste on schoolchildren. How does it benefit pupils or help them become better members of society?
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    I was forced to take courses in mathematics and science that I had little interest in. Those who design the school curriculum in no way imagine that a majority of students are going to major in literature. The goal is to make some effort in turning out students who have a well-rounded education with an exposure to not only literature, but also mathematics, biology, physics, history, art, music, etc... From that point on the individual is able to make a more informed decision as to what subject interests him or her. Honestly, I believe students should be given the opportunity to focus upon the field he or she is passionate about from an earlier age... perhaps 13 or 14... but there should also be the option of a general education in a broad array of field for those who aren't certain as to what subject or field they wish to focus upon.

    Of course many teachers hope that they might inspire at least a few students to develop a passion for Art or Music or Literature but the Major works of Western literature are not taught with the primary goal of indoctrinating students or with the hope of developing their sense of taste. Such works are taught with the aim of broadening the students' exposure to other possibilities beyond the Cure or Beyonce or Harry Potter which they are already reading or listening to on their own... largely because they have been "indoctrinated" by the much more powerful influences of peer pressure and the mass media. There is also a recognition that a grasp of a broader understanding/appreciation of the history and artistic achievements of the culture/society in which they will live. Students already have a firm grasp of the popular culture in which they live.

    Of course the curriculum in many nations is undergoing drastic changes. Literature, poetry, music, and physical education are being curtailed and the stress is being placed upon drilling students in mathematics and non-fiction reading/writing. Many of these changes are being funded heavily by corporations with the goal of churning out dutiful employees without much ability for critical thinking let alone creativity.
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    Registered User Nikonani's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I did not insist that the teachers listen to The Cure or watch The Young Ones, so why should I have to read poems about daffodils or C19th romantic fiction?
    Because one has merit and the other is pop-culture garbage for young teenagers.
    “But though I loved not holy things,
    To hear them scorned brought pain,—
    They were my childhood; and these dames
    Were merely perjured in saints' names
    And fixed upon saints' days for games."

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    This sounds like the equivalent of forcing children to eat their greens because left to themselves they would only eat chips. I am not sure exactly what the benefits of eating green vegetables are. I suppose, eventually, if you did not eat them you would get scurvy or some other medical condition. Eating too much junk food would make you fat and possibly give you blood pressure. I expect a nutritionist would know exactly what the benefits of eating fresh vegetables are. So what do educationalists know about the benefits of teaching literature? If the benefit is that eventually they may come to enjoy it, I am not sure that is justification. I was thinking there might be benefits such as:

    1. improving reading ability
    2. putting you in the shoes of people unlike yourself
    3. introducing common cultural references, e.g. Thought Crime, Lolita, Catch-22
    4. engendering a sense of national pride
    5. making history seem more vivid
    6. helping you to understand the motives of others
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Employee of the Month blank|verse's Avatar
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    kev – you seem to have beaten me to the punch with the list of reasons for studying English Literature in high schools. Here are some of the benefits to students in the UK, some of which I see you have reached already:

    1. It improves their ability to read, write and speak.
    2. It asks them to think about emotional and intellectual issues, to consider their own values and opinions, as well as to understand the opinions of others and how they may challenge their own.
    3. It asks students to empathise with others.
    4. It allows students to enjoy literature and to share their enthusiasm with others.
    5. It exposes them to their own literary (and historical) heritage as well as that of other countries and cultures.
    6. It asks them to analyse and evaluate how a writer has used language, form and structure to create a literary work (including novels, poems and plays).
    7. It asks them to consider, express, and justify with textual evidence, their own opinions and interpretations, while taking into account other opinions and how they differ from their own.
    8. It enables students to learn how their own writing, academically or creatively, can improve from the examples of professional writers.
    9. It allows students to compare similar literary works (usually poems for brevity) and study how writers have, for example, written about the same theme in different ways, using different literary techniques, and so on.
    10. It allows students to learn how a literary work can be expressed in a different medium, such as film.

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    Zorba looked at the sky with open mouth in a sort of ecstasy, as though he were seeing it for the first time....

    "Can you tell me, boss," he said, and his voice sounded deep and earnest in the warm night, "what all these things mean? Who made them all? And why? And, above all" -- here Zorba's voice trembled with anger and fear -- "why do people die?"

    "I don't know, Zorba," I replied, ashamed, as if I had been asked the simplest thing, the most essential thing, and was unable to explain it.

    "You don't know!" said Zorba in round-eyed astonishment, just like his expression the night I had confessed that I could not dance.... "Well, all those damned books you read -- what good are they? Why do you read them? If they don't tell you that, what do they tell you?"

    "They tell me about the perplexity of mankind, who can give no answer to the question you've just put to me, Zorba."
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Studies have found that reading fiction over nonfiction predicted better social ability and increased levels of empathy. In a different study that appeared in the prestigious Science Magazine, the researchers performed five separate experiments to explore the same question in different ways, which found those who read literary fiction had better theory of mind (the ability to understand other's mental states) in comparison to those who read genre fiction, nonfiction, or no fiction at all. In a different study in PLOS One, researchers performed two experiments that found readers of fiction had increased levels of empathy, if they also had high levels of transport into the story, while the control group reading nonfiction had no change in empathy levels. A neuroscience study found that reading a novel can cause changes in the brain even during resting state (when you're not actively reading). Yet other psychological studies have found we adopt certain attitudes and ideas from characters through "experience-taking" in which we identify with aspects of a character. Likewise, studying literature may make you into an atheist; the potential reasoning behind why studying literature seems to increase nonbelief is that it exposes you to new ideas and forces you to see the world through others' perspectives (the characters, the authors, etc.)

    You'll notice a running theme.

    1) Literature makes you more empathetic, more capable of understanding the thoughts and experiences of others.

    2) It opens your mind to new ideas about the world and helps you see the world with eyes different than your own, thus giving you a new perspective on it.
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    I also enjoy a school where they will teach what I already like, therefore I know.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I did not appreciate being required to study literature at school. There were books I did enjoy reading, but not those we had to do at school. I could not see the point of it. It seemed to me that schools were trying to indoctrinate pupils as to what books they should enjoy reading. I did not insist that the teachers listen to The Cure or watch The Young Ones, so why should I have to read poems about daffodils or C19th romantic fiction?

    So, what is the point of studying English Literature at school? Presumably it is not about imposing taste on schoolchildren. How does it benefit pupils or help them become better members of society?
    Students should always be forced to explore outside of their comfort zone. Learning is not about reinforcing tastes, it's about confronting prejudices.

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Drkshadow03 View Post
    Likewise, studying literature may make you into an atheist; the potential reasoning behind why studying literature seems to increase nonbelief is that it exposes you to new ideas and forces you to see the world through others' perspectives (the characters, the authors, etc.)
    Yes, I read the same study a while back. Except I'm not sure that the reason for the upswing in atheism was do to exposure to new ideas and perspectives. The study laid the probable cause at the feet of modern philosophy, which people in the humanities and social sciences are more exposed to than in the hard sciences. While the high rate of atheism among scientists could be construed to positivism and an institutional bias in the subject's literature since the nineteenth century, the prime motive in the humanities is probably the way the curriculum is full of Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault etcetera who offer an atheistic worldview. The emphasis in the curriculum on authors who are materialist atheists and often openly hostile to religion is pretty overwhelming. The exposure to different worldviews and religions shouldn't necessarily promote relativistic thinking more than pluralism, universalism, and ecumenical thinking unless it's being taught with a negative bias. However, I'd be willing to bet that a classical education or more traditional scholastic one would increase religiosity since most of the philosophers and writers of the past were religious, however they've largely been excised from the curriculum.

    I've been seeing this lately in the study of history, methodological biases in historiography. You can see it in the way the Christian middle ages is constructed and taught as The Dark Ages, as well as other judgmental terms. Contrast this with The Enlightenment and you get an idea of what I'm talking about. There's long been a biased picture in history that there was no intellectual advancement or culture worth speaking of in the middle ages, and that the period simply forms a lacuna between the learning of the Classical period and the Renaissance. However, we now know that this is not so. There were advancements and the theory of continuity, which sees no clear break between the periods, now is in the ascent. You can also see historical irreligious bias perpetuated in major texts of the field such as Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire where he blames Christianity for the fall of Rome and has little sympathy for the Jews. The works of Jacob Burckhardt champions humanists and secularity in the high Renaissance while reducing and downplaying the role of religious people. Burckhardt also demonizes Emperor Constantine for adopting Christianity while writing apologia for Diocletian's persecution of Christians in the Roman era. So as you can see, even history isn't neutral or objective.

    As for sociology, it's largely built upon the ideas of Durkheim and Marx. Max Weber is supposed to have more sympathy for religion than those two, but even he put forward the Secularization Theory that supposes incorrectly that "as societies progress through modernization and rationalization, religion loses it's authority in all aspects of social life and governance. (wiki)" This theory has only been descriptive of certain parts of Europe, and not the rest of the world where religion is making a comeback as the societies modernize. But even in the sociology of religion believers are largely forced to write under an atheistic methodology that assumes that religion is a man made construction rather than inspired by deities, that miracles don't exist, and which seeks materialistic reductive explanations for all events or conditions.

    One could also point to the liberal bias in Academia where three quarters of the professors are liberal compared to a small conservative minority. http://theweek.com/articles/441474/h...social-science
    http://nypost.com/2014/10/12/liberal...y-of-research/
    William F. Buckley's "God and Man at Yale", Alan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind", Raymond Aron's "The Opium of the Intellectuals", and C.S. Lewis' "The Abolition of Man" would be common touchstones for this topic. Who teaches and what they teach are important to how and what people learn.
    Last edited by mortalterror; 08-15-2015 at 06:18 AM.
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    Bibliophile Drkshadow03's Avatar
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    Thanks for sharing all that great information, Mortal. I agree there are biases in all sorts of fields. While I think your ideas would make for a worthwhile discussion, I am hesitant to explore that path too deeply here because I am generally interested in the main topic of this thread and it seems to me that a discussion of biases and assumptions in other fields doesn't quite address the purpose of a literary education.
    "You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too." - Herodotus

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    More educational benefits of reading literature:
    • to explain fairly difficult ideas, e.g. double-think, the distortion of language to control thought in 1984
    • to provide a vocabulary to help recognize where society has gone wrong, e.g. Kafkaesque, Circumlocution Office
    • to illustrate that social values change, e.g. acceptance of slavery in Robinson Crusoe
    • to develop critical faculties, i.e. criticize what you consider wrong.


    For the last point, older literature can be more useful than modern literature, as modern literature is so professional. Someone like Charles Dickens OTOH is so patchy, you can have fun trying to work out why one bit works and another doesn't.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I did not appreciate being required to study literature at school. There were books I did enjoy reading, but not those we had to do at school. I could not see the point of it. It seemed to me that schools were trying to indoctrinate pupils as to what books they should enjoy reading. I did not insist that the teachers listen to The Cure or watch The Young Ones, so why should I have to read poems about daffodils or C19th romantic fiction?

    So, what is the point of studying English Literature at school? Presumably it is not about imposing taste on schoolchildren. How does it benefit pupils or help them become better members of society?
    You have a valid point but remember all education is a form of indoctrination. Having learnt to read we are then exposed to constant media indoctrination. It is an attempt by society to manipulate us for its benefit. In the UK education has been a golden calf since Tony Blair said on the steps of downing street : education , education ,educatio

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