How we teach literature is broken

No wonder then — English is no longer fun for many of us.

Sagnik Sarkar
Feb 28, 2018 · 5 min read

Do you love literature? I sure do. Perhaps you too are in the same boat. But some people beg to differ.

Why is it that some people don’t like literature?

Well, to an extent, it’s a personal choice.

Beyond that, I think it has much to do with the pitiful methods we use to teach literature in school.

What has gone wrong?

I’ve been at the receiving end of a formal school education in English Literature my entire school life.

Books have changed. So have the times. But we continue to teach literature the same old way.

In my opinion, this is what has gone wrong with our present approach.

1. A disproportionate emphasis on technicalities

A few months ago, my 12 year old brother came home with shocking news. His English teacher had taken apart an entire poem and listed the occurrences of all the figures of speech present in it!

I glanced through his notes, appalled. It had references to not just metaphors and similes both also zeugma, synecdoche, assonance, onomatopoeia and transferred epithet.

I’m almost 18 now. I can appreciate how metaphors and similes add spice to a text.

But the concept of a transferred epithet still isn’t clear to me. I had learnt about alliteration only a couple of years ago, a zeugma only this year. I had never heard of a synecdoche, assonance or onomatopoeia!

How can we expect kids who aren’t even teenagers to understand the intricacies of figures of speech?

Some teachers focus too much on the technical intricacies of texts.

The aim of reading literature is to appreciate its greatness. Figures of speech — if understood, add spice to the broth.

If not understood, they only confuse and squeeze the joy out of literature.

That’s definitely not what we want.

2. Lack of feeling

Literature is meant to be felt, not just read.

Some teachers make us fall asleep — the ones who read monotonously and fail to exude the feelings and emotion in the text. Others keep us in rapt attention at the edge of our seats the entire time.

Yes, it’s hard being an English teacher. Everytime you stand in front of a class to read a text, you are a performing artist.

A great English teacher successfully brings out the emotions in a text — and imbibes them in his/her students.

And sometimes, the text alone is just not enough.

  • Dramas are best acted out — not necessarily on a stage, but with some iota of intonation and facial expressions. If that’s not possible, at least a screening helps.
  • There are some poems that are very bland unless accompanied by some other aid that brings out the emotion in it.

A quintessential example is Do Not Gentle Into That Good Night. It’s a call not to give in to death without a fight.

The poem itself is quite bland to read. But when you listen to its rendition in Anthony Hopkins’s baritone voice (which was very aptly used in Interstellar), the feeling in it stands out!

3. Telling students what to think

My dad once made a very insightful comment:

  • Literature is different from science.
  • In literature, you’re allowed — and encouraged — to look at things in your own way.

That’s the beauty of literature.

How we conventionally teach literature in school, however, is the very antithesis of that.

Usually, there’s a “sage on the stage” — the teacher, largely dictating to the students how to interpret a text.

Thankfully, we have moved away from those days when the only “correct” answer in your exam was your teacher’s interpretation. Today, students enjoy the freedom to put their own spin on texts.

However, literature is still taught — students are told what the text means. This leaves little incentive for them to think for themselves — the bulwark of literature.

Some do. Most don’t.

More importantly, literature can never be reduced to a single straitjacket formula. The way literature is taught ensures that schools do just that.

How do we fix this?

In my humble opinion, I’d say there are some very simple changes we can make.

1. Trim the excess technicality

There is no need to encumber students' understanding and love of literature by going too much into the intricacies of a text. However, that is sometimes necessary to appreciate the text itself.

We cannot expect pre-teens to appreciate metaphors, or a 15 year old an onomatopoeia. A 13 year old will be unable to appreciate the essence of the prejudice inherent in The Merchant of Venice.

Most teachers do this great, so let’s keep this simple —let’steach in proportion to the size of the brain.

2. Put some feeling into it

That passion in literature needs to be felt.

If it’s a drama we’re reading, modulate our voice and use some facial expressions to bring out the essence of the text. That’s the least we can do in a classroom setting.

Use aids if necessary. Poems like Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night are best appreciated with the help of a powerful recitation such as this:

3. Don’t teach, discuss

Let’s get to the most difficult issue now.

The traditional classroom is didactic — by and large, the teacher dictates and the students assimilate.

That might work in the lower classes, but once we move into high school — just about when students become wise enough to interpret texts on their own — it’s no longer the correct method to use.

Rather, after a certain class, literature classes should be dialectic — a two way street in which both the teacher and the students contribute.

In such a situation:

  • The teacher should introduce the general theme and be the guide and moderator. Every text has a general theme, and a teacher is necessary to steer the discussion in the right track. Further, texts are often best appreciated when read in context of the prevailing social circumstances at that point of time + the author’s own life. Only a teacher can provide this valuable information.
  • The students put all this together and interpret it, with the guidance of the teacher. This would allow and encourage them to use their own critical faculty to interpret texts their own way. Most importantly, they should be allowed to build on and critique the arguments already made by their peers.

This, if done properly, would produce a magnificent end result — an appreciation of the general theme of the text coupled with every student’s own interpretation of the specifics and secondary themes.

In conclusion

This is, by no means, an insult to our English teachers. I’ll tell you why.

I’ve had my fair share of English teachers in school— some good, some exceptional.

Regardless, as I look back on my school life, I can say this without an iota of doubt —

No other cohort of teachers has opened our eyes to such a vast variety of issues and views as you have.

I’m sure you appreciate the nobility of the huge burden on your backs.

I was but a school student not too long ago. These are my humble suggestions to improve the magnificent, life-changing effect of your subject.

Cheers. 😉

Sagnik Sarkar

Written by

Introvert with a universe under my skin. Law Student. 19.

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