Literature in high school

Kamakshi Balasubramanian

Engaging high school students in the study of literature is often a challenge. At that stage of school education, there is a sense of rushing towards an end. Students, their guardians, as well as the school administration, often seem to be preoccupied with ensuring admission into a prestigious college or university. Almost all entrance exams, at least in the Indian context, seem to be science oriented for entry into degree courses in engineering and medicine. Entry into other (non-professional) degree programs, whether in the sciences, the humanities, or commerce, does not generally require candidates to pass an entrance exam. With this background then, it is not surprising that high school students are distracted and sometimes even actively discouraged from engaging intellectually in the humanities and the arts during those concluding years.

An educated individual is not merely a literate person with laboratory and computational skills. The study of literature is not just for mere entertainment.

Quality education should foster a mind capable of reflection – with an awareness of society and history – and cultivate clear and contextually appropriate communication skills. Such minds are the foundation for humanistic societies. Educators have always recognized the importance and value of the study of humanities – and of language and literature – for the development of the mind.

It follows that the study of literature is uniquely placed to develop certain essential humanistic qualities in an individual. Time and again, curriculum developers across the world reiterate the need, both existentially and intellectually, to engage with the culture of one’s own community as well as the cultures of distant communities. Imaginative literature – including truthful, factual, non-fiction writing – describes the conditions of life, the aspirations and achievements of humanity, the tragic acts of inhumanity. Great writing – including fictional narratives and non-fiction accounts – in prose and poetic forms, offers readers an insight into the values by which people lived and live. Such literature offers deep insights into the history of the human world in distant or unfamiliar times and places, during periods of conflicts and triumphs, much of which we can hardly experience first-hand.

Reading and exploring unfamiliar cultural and historical contexts widens our perspective about the world. The most significant outcomes of these explorations, as research (see References) tells us, are the development of empathy and width of perception. The reader begins to sense that value judgments and concepts of social morality are astoundingly varied across communities. Educators understand this, regardless of whether students – and sometimes parents – appreciate the value of the study of literature. The debate is not about whether to teach literature, but how to engage each generation – with its own unique set of life objectives – in literature.

Any input aimed at making a classroom discipline more engaging and valuable inevitably requires the teacher to be original, creative, and sensitive, with a view to deepen the value of learning, but without adding to the content burden placed upon a student. What does this mean?

The challenge the teacher faces is to engage the students in the texts that are being taught. Does engagement depend on the depth of the thematic content of a text? On the relevance of the text to one’s life? On the simplicity or complexity of ideas in the text? Which of these elements contributes to keeping student interest alive?

A text must speak to the learner. In our lives as educators and lifelong learners, we have seen how we have moved away from certain literary masterpieces of an earlier era to more contemporary writing that will someday earn the appellation of being a masterpiece.

I suggest that books such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series are worth a serious look in this context. One genre of literature which engages young learners today is fantasy and adventure, including science fiction. Probing what is empirically unknown or even deemed unknowable, but to which the young mind is keenly drawn, might seem to remove one from the immediate reality of everyday life, considered so vital to develop empathy. Does it mean that, to be engaged in literature, today’s students need to be removed from day-to-day concerns or concerns of socio-economic, political significance and issues of history, which play an important role in understanding our present reality? The answer, obviously, is no.

Photo: Sakti Prasanna Monhanty, courtesy: DAV Public School, Pokhariput.
Photo has been altered for illustrative purpose.

What was it about the film Oppenheimer that drew many young people to the theatres? Were they all hoping to learn nuclear fission in a three-hour lesson? Oppenheimer told an important story. The movie raised questions about the ethics of doing science, and it gripped the audience, many of them young people. Movies such as Avatar and Black Panther, which take you into unexplored lands and terrains, movies that challenge the ability of the best-made computers to save human life in precarious situations, movies that probe beyond the boundaries of reality as we know it, engage young minds a great deal. There is a lesson in this for me. If dream-like fantasy about the improbable is one side of these riveting tales of adventure, the other side is an attempt to probe the infinite capacity of the human mind to do good and evil.

In today’s world, the youth is being challenged by questions which are substantially different from those that earlier generations faced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The vexing issues facing our youth are not so much about social conventions and norms, not so much about what or who is right and who is wrong, but these are more abstract issues of knowledge itself: how we can discover what we can only imagine, how far and fast can we each make a breakthrough and overcome conventional barriers to knowing.

What kind of writing could serve this search? Perhaps non-fiction is the soundest basis in which such texts could be found. Living is the greatest adventure. Learning is the way to fully experience the adventure of living. If this spirit of adventure is addressed in texts chosen carefully in specific areas of knowledge, a vibrant interest could be awakened. Records about pioneers who have led, crusaders who never gave up, are inspirational to the adventurous learner.

Several biographies, such as essays about women scientists, their struggles for recognition, their achievements, especially in England, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, are as inspirational as they are well-written. These texts have more to offer the reader than information on science, because of the underlying question of establishing intellectual equality between the genders. Similarly, in a class on geography, exploration stories can be used effectively. For example, an old favourite, the astonishing one-man Kon-Tiki expedition, describes how to create a vessel out of extremely light material. Now, a text like that describes the intrepid nature of the explorer, as well as his scientific and technological knowledge. In the history class, a text about an archeological expedition might offer a fine reading experience. Prescribed textbooks for study in individual disciplines could include non-fiction texts about prehistoric times to explain evolution, about climate change to encourage green invention, and about archaeology to discover the development of ancient languages. Texts in cultural studies, orations of humanists, histories of industrialists, and biographies of inventors – in short, narratives that introduce how social change occurs inspire the young reader. Ideally, a teacher would pick out passages where a strong episode with emotional impact is narrated to hold the reader’s attention in the unfolding of a storyline.

The teacher’s approach and the teacher’s creativity can introduce the foundation of literary appreciation during the reading of texts. A text is impactful both for what it says and how it says it. The “how” relates to the way the content or the subject matter is organized and expressed in words. Something as fundamental as “show, don’t tell,” works differently in imaginative texts and non-fiction texts. Figurative speech is far less frequently used in non-fiction texts than in imaginative narratives.

A discussion about teaching literature is conventionally incomplete if it fails to address how literary terms are to be taught. In my experience, knowledge of literary techniques and rhetorical devices is useful only if it develops in the learner an appreciation of effective writing and purposeful structuring of texts. Formal lists with definitions and examples don’t necessarily support the enjoyment of reading. The teachable moment in each text needs to be effectively used to introduce useful concepts and terms, and to describe the features of a literary work that make it effective and powerful.

Fresh modes of writing evolve with ardent new voices. Changing social reality finds expression in hitherto unfamiliar treatment of that reality, in idioms that challenge established norms. The study of literature today is most fruitful when it connects disciplines and awakens contemplation of one’s human potential in contemporary terms.

Summing up
Texts that are age and context appropriate go a long way in interesting young readers in the study of literature. The teaching of literature in high school should aim at nurturing the ability in emerging generations to develop humanistic values, such as empathy and a vision for a just world. The study of good writing contributes significantly to acquiring the skills and tools needed to write with clarity and sensitivity. Fantasy and adventure writing appear to inspire young minds, as they seek their place in this time of knowledge explosion. Human capabilities when pitted against artificial intelligence call for an intrepid spirit of adventure, represented both in fantasy fiction and in non-fiction accounts of path-breaking pioneers in every area of human endeavour.

References

  1. https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/how-reading-fiction-increases-empathy-and-encourages-understanding
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study
  3. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14759551.2019.1569339
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3559433/
  5. https://ojs.mau.se/index.php/educare/article/view/566
  6. https://www.redalyc.org/journal/1938/193875163013/html/

The author is an educator, a life-long learner, and an occasional writer. She can be reached at papukamakshi@gmail.com.

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