I recently spent time with a class of fourteen-year-olds, talking about words, specifically words strung together to form speech. I started out by asking them whether they thought words could make people act in a particular way. “Can words lead to action?” I asked. There was some thinking and mulling over.
We spent several weeks discussing, reading, and studying many of the greatest (and infamous) words read aloud: the Gettysburg Address, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in Germany, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, a host of Winston Churchill speeches from World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speeches, and some of the best contemporary commencement addresses given in the US in recent years. Many of these speeches were written in reaction to events, and most of them called on their respective audiences to do something (be calm, have fortitude, ensure victory, reach for success). Whether or not the words we read actually shaped (or changed) history can be debated, but the more important question is whether words can shape conscience, which affects not just one action but a lifetime of actions. This is something teachers have long relied on the power of literature to do.
In the late 1890s, American high school English curricula regularly listed works by Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alexander Pope, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, Daniel Webster, John Milton, William Bryant and Geoffrey Chaucer. Such authors were not just for those headed off to college. Students destined for workrooms—such as those who attended a manual training high school in Denver, Colorado—were still tasked with a similar English curriculum.
And yet, as an educator recently told me, referring to new standards that stress the importance of nonfiction and autobiography, “The trend right now is a movement away from literature,” and it begins in middle school. Imagine your children gradually being fed a leaner and leaner diet of literature beginning in sixth grade. They are done with Beverly Clearly and Ramona. They devoured The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, then maybe they plowed through a few Kate DiCamillo books, ticked through Roald Dahl and topped it off with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Layer on a handful of modern literary choices or a Newbery Award winner or two and it’s off to high school. What happens to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Odyssey and The Iliad, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women, Call of the Wild, and (at least) a hundred others?
There are, however, forces opposed to this movement, especially the move away from exposing kids to challenging literature. Writer David Denby spent time at three high schools (two in New York, one in Connecticut), where teachers are trying to figure out how to successfully (continue to) teach challenging literature to the current generation. The teachers describe reaching today’s teens with literature as a tough assignment. As Denby, who spent time studying alongside classes of tenth and eleventh graders, says in his new book, Lit Up:
When they were very young, teens may have read Harry Potter and later they may have read dystopian and science fiction novels, vampire romance, graphic novels (some very good), young adult fiction (ditto), convulsively exciting street lit. By the time they are fifteen or sixteen, however, reading anything more demanding and time consuming threatens to cut off their smartphone sense of being in touch with everyone and everything at once. . . As they get older, many don’t see why reading seriously should be important at all.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Andrew Simmons, a teacher of 10th and 11th grade English, notes that teenagers today, who are “inundated with video games, movies, and memes” can “often seem hard to shake up” with literature. He argues for more focus on students’ emotional responses to literature:
Characters are fictitious abstractions, and, without actors to bring them to life and makeup and digital tricks to make the drama feel real, students may strictly do the analytical work teachers expect without the interference of a significant emotional response.
“Othello allows my class to review high-school courtship patterns and the insecurities on which they thrive,” Simmons says. “There’s a pretty clear line to draw between Lord of the Flies and the boorish pack mentality of teenage boys.”
If schools back off from literature, they back off from philosophy; they remove the opportunity for students to be lit up (as Denby titled his book) by the ideas of life. “If you don’t read books, and if you don’t get consumed by the physical and moral life of men and women in fiction and history, too many facets of yourself may never come into being,” Denby writes. “That kind of reading is a special good.”
In a single academic year, the 10th grade English class at Manhattan’s Beacon School, where Denby visited, read Rousseau, Falkner, Hesse, Frankel, and Hawthorne. The point of reading these books was not just to cross another name off their author bucket lists. Denby watched the students wrestle with these books to consider “the problem of authority,” the individual and his or her relationship to society, sin and judgment, the challenges of modernity and its technologies, and so much more. As Denby’s book shows, and as our best teachers know, literature isn’t merely a school requirement or a list of recommended books. Great literature teaches us how to live better lives. And those are lessons we carry with us long after we’ve left school.