Thursday, March 24, 2011

Literature in the 21st Century

Question: Why read [the classics of] literature?

Answer: “I do not believe that teaching literature should be about dragging students kicking and screaming through works they hate and poems they find opaque. It should be about nurturing the next generation of readers—readers who one day may choose to buy a ticket for a performance of Macbeth, who will excitedly order the latest Cormac McCarthy for their Kindles and Nooks, who can find solace in poetry during times of trouble. Much is made of the economic impact of education, but I’m more concerned about preparing students’ hearts and minds for whatever the future may hold. Writers from George Orwell to Kazuo Ishiguro have warned us, but unless students read and heed their warnings we may be heading for not the best of all possible worlds but the worst.” Carol Jago, P. 14.

Comment: I met a representative of the X-Generation (born in the 1960s). He was a graduate of a leading university, majoring in English. I never forgot what he said to me. “No one reads Henry James anymore.” Henry James, for him, was a generic author who represented the classics of literature. What he was saying was that nobody reads the classics of literature anymore. I wanted to say to that young man that he was missing the intricate thought and feeling and expanding of the mind that Henry James offers to readers.

I think that all of the generations, from “X” to the present, are helping to create this “worst of all possible worlds.” From texting to tweeting to gabbing on cell phones, watching TV’s 230 channels, playing computer games, etc. no time is left for the intellectual and emotional challenges of classic literature or any literature for that matter. Throw in the need to expand literary offerings to choices of nonfiction and literature of other countries and deciding what to teach in literature in the 21st century is bewildering.

The essential problem with teaching the classics seems to be how to teach them without “dragging students kicking and screaming through works they hate and poems they find opaque.” I would welcome my readers’ suggested solutions to this problem. RayS.

Title: “To Cherish the Interests of Literature. Carol Jago (past President of the NCTE). Council Chronicle: The National Council of Teachers of English (March 2011), p. 14.

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