I suspect that for the English teachers out there, this question hits home in a very particular way. I’ve heard a variation of this question during my entire teaching career, as the subjects I teach, from literature to popular culture to fine arts, are often regard as superfluous, frivolous, or quite simply unnecessary.
Of course, what I’m teaching my students are crucial skills, those of reading and writing, which inform many aspects of so-called “real life.” The ability to carefully read and decode a legal document, for example, builds on skills I teach my ninth graders, and will be important when they sign contracts and legal agreements for the rest of their lives. If they ever write a brief, a memo, a proposal, a grant, a cover letter, they are also using skills they began developing with me.
However, I also thought about this question while beginning The Catcher in the Rye with my students. Each year, I know there are some students who will fall in love with this book, who will identify with Holden in a powerful way because they feel like outsiders too, set apart from a world they observe so keenly but cannot quite figure out. Of course, I love teaching the book to these students, because it will resonate with them and perhaps, if I’m lucky, they will feel little less alone.
But what about the others? What will they gain? In an assignment I gave my seniors in the fall, I wrote, “great literature can serve both as windows and mirrors: providing us ways to see into our greater world, different cultures, times or personalities, while also giving us a new way to see and understand ourselves.” This belief in literature’s power to serve as both a window and a mirror is at the heart of why I believe it is so important to teach literature, beyond the skills it also imparts.
How do we look into the hearts of people we will never meet, and how do we learn to deeply and clearly into our own? The answer, for me, will always be great literature, and the question is one worth dedicating a lifetime to asking.
- The Importance of Teaching Literature (brighthub.com)