Given the fact that reading is a very private experience, it may seem like a mission impossible to instruct other people what to read and how to understand a literary text. To some degree, there is a bit of truth in that; for one person (the teacher) to pick a certain literary work and impose it on other people (the students) may seem like violating some private sphere. Firstly, one should be careful to advise other people what to read at all, and secondly, the understanding of a text will most likely vary from person to person.
On the Surface
Traditionally, literature teaching will be dominated by two major elements: text analysis and cultural history. They are both somewhat overestimated as a classroom activity, and often become dead boring after some lessons. The basic analysis (plot, characters, setting and so on) merely provides the tools for an instrumental understanding of a text. And if tools are not used carefully, they may, in fact, ruin the material. It is not hard to kill a text by analysing it to smithereens. Usually, the teaching of literature will also include some basic factual information about the cultural trends and major writers from different periods in literary history, which is quite legitimate and even important from a general educational viewpoint. But understanding the dialectics of cultural history is interesting only if one wants to get the full overview of what writers were preoccupied with in their time. The appreciation of a text, however, does not depend on information about when and why it was written or how it is put together – these elements just drift on the surface, so to speak. So the ambition must be to go beyond the technical work and look for a more profound, and perhaps even existential, comprehension of a literary text. The essential issues are: what makes this text work; how does it work; does it work differently on us; where does this leave me as the reader?
Learning for Life
All activity in school is (or should be) aimed at enhancing the students’ competence. Students are supposed to learn and gain knowledge they hopefully will profit from later in life. Real competence is when we see that what we learn actually has a relevant meaning in our own lives. However, for most students the primary ambition in a hectic school day is simply to get by; it is all about testing and assessment, grades and a diploma that will open doors to moving on in the educational system so they may one day have a job with a decent income. For the students, this may be “learning for life” – but somehow that phrase usually has a slightly different connotation. It may sound ambitious, but literature in the classroom can introduce the students to how literature enhances our social understanding, and in that way really become learning for life. A literary text may open up for an understanding of human relations, interaction, instincts, ambitions, emotions – all these familiar elements of what it is to be human. Most any text will objectively be of use if one can see its universal reflection of reality. It can provide knowledge of people and their surroundings, challenges and responses – which in turn may work upon how we see our own lives in relation to the same issues.
Communicating literature is more than presenting factual knowledge about literature as such; it is to convey knowledge about people and human interaction. For example, a discussion about literature in relation to reality is something different from cramming a text book definition of “realism” as a socio-critical approach. This means that one must establish some sort of distance to the actual text, and ask the right questions. Then one may find an understanding of the textual universe which, in turn, may provide a new insight. The text is always some reflection of reality; it does not give the answers, but it may open for a chain of responses that will ultimately challenge your own moral standards and view of reality. In this respect, reading virtually can become learning for life.
Method and Practice
There are several ways to go about this. A usual approach is to use the text as a starting point and take it from there. However, it is quite possible to go the other way round and start with a general dialogue, in groups or in class, that will raise some of the issues that will be brought up in the text. Or one may even do both – a brief introductive thematic approach, e.g. a slightly provocative statement which the students may discuss and reflect upon - then do the text and end up with a more extensive analysis of the issue raised initially, only this time related to the text.
- Cloning and genetic manipulation in connection to Frankenstein. How far is it possible, or ethically right, to go in medical research?
- Connected to Jekyll and Hyde. What is schizophrenia, or how can certain drugs affect your personality? Is there such a thing as a duality of man? Do we all have a darker side that can be brought out under certain circumstances?
- Youth depression connected to The Catcher in the Rye. What is it like, and how common is the condition? Why do some young people just give up and even turn suicidal? (Here one is advised to go in with caution...)
- In connection to Popular Mechanics (Raymond Carver). What can a break-up or a divorce bring about in a person? Different custody arrangements. (Here many of the students most likely will have personal experiences; one should step lightly here as well…)
- Moral and ethics in connection to Huckleberry Finn. How far can you go to justify crime? Are our moral standards flexible? Is it OK to commit a crime because the overall intention is good? Will that depend on the gravity of the situation, or do we have a barrier of consistency somewhere?
- In connection to Dickens (e.g. Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, or Bleak House), an idea is to focus on the development of the legal system over the last century or so. What changes do we find, and why have these changes come about? Is there abuse of power in the court-rooms today around the world? How does the legal system work in a democracy? Was Victorian England a democracy? What do we do to prevent the abuse of power in the political system?
- Love and jealousy are strong emotions. In connection to Wuthering Heights, a relevant starting point could be to focus on love as a destructive force. Is it possible to love and hate someone at the same time? How far would we be willing to go to pursue love? Is love an obsession that, if it is strong enough, eventually turns against itself?
There are, in fact, loads of real-life issues that can be brought up in connection to nearly any literary text, classic or contemporary. The ambition is to create a dialectic correlation between literature and life. How does the protagonist(s) reflect and act to get out of his predicament? Or – how did he end up in one in the first place? Could it have been prevented by a different turn of the plot? Would it turn out differently in real life? Why? Hypothetically – what would you have done in the same situation? Have you experienced how your human ideals are challenged once reality kicks in? These and similar questions may incite a fruitful dialogue, in class or in groups, that will challenge the students to see the relevance of a literary text and to reflect upon the human capacity to handle real-life situations.