Friday, April 29, 2016

Literature's importance

I have long believed literature to be important, but I've never been clear on why it's important. Religions, cultures and even families pass down their wisdom through stories, so maybe that's part of the answer. But still, why should students study Macbeth or Moby-Dick? What of lasting value is actually being learned?

Now I've read David Denby's new book Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives, and if I am still not entirely clear why literature is important I am at least more certain than ever that it is. I can witness dramatic changes in the lives of several high school sophomores through literature classes taught by challenging teachers given the freedom to teach outside the confines of textbooks and state testing guidelines.

"At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change," Denby writes in his introduction. "Fifteen is a danger spot and a sweet spot... They can be reached. Their moral education, as well as their literary education is a stake; the two may be inseparable." And so he decided to monitor classes in three public schools, including a troubled inner-city school. The racially diverse students, while unusually bright, were not readers when the year began. Their lives were chained to their handheld devices, and they seemed to believe that was all they needed to lead successful, rewarding lives.

Then they met their teachers, including Sean Leon, who teaches at the Beacon School in Manhattan and whose assigned reading would be too demanding for most college sophomores. Books he required included Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Jean-Paul Satre's No Exit and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Teachers Jessica Zelenski and Mary Beth Jordan were less challenging, but still they taught works by William Shakespeare, Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Alice Walker, among many others. These lit teachers lit fires in their students, most of whom were non-readers when they began ninth grade and are now in college.

Denby follows these classes month by month and book by book, and you can observe the progress made as students become more animated, more caught up in their discussions and more committed to actually reading these books rather than just reading about them in study guides. One class was told to write an essay ranking the books they had read and explaining why they judged one better than another. "They justified their taste," Denby writes. "Suddenly they had taste in books, a new idea for many."

The difficulty of the these books, especially those assigned by Leon, was an advantage, not a disadvantage, Denby believes. "Curious and ambitious teens always read things that are too hard for them and fail to understand half of what they read. But frustration only makes them eager to find out more."

One advantage literature has over such other typical high school subjects as biology and geometry is that it allows for interpretation and argument. What does 1984 mean in 2016? Well, it means something a little different to everyone who reads it. It gives us something to think about and talk about, and thinking and talking about it and other great books helps young minds develop in ways that biology, geometry and those handheld electronic devices cannot do.

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