Why teach literature? Surely the question should be, can we afford not to!?
Pragmatists have denounced it, reactionaries have censored it, and bigots have burned it … but Great Literature has survived to tell the tale and is still being taught in our schools today. Frequently, though, this is much to the dissatisfaction of our youngsters, many of whom would prefer to snack upon the bite-sized chunks of trivia which incessantly appear on social media.
So, if our charges prefer infinitely less challenging forms of media, why on Earth are we still struggling to infuse them with an appreciation of the classics? Is it mainly to satisfy the aesthetic inclinations of English teachers and examiners, or merely to placate the nostalgia of those who dictate educational policy?
Well, every true cause needs its Declaration, so for all besieged torch-bearers who daily endeavour to keep alive the flame of humanity’s glorious literary tradition within the confines of their classrooms, here is a manifesto just for you!
In Defence of Great Literature
By Peter Morrisson
Dear Switched-off, Disengaged and Disconnected Youth,
We, the guardians of this unrivalled repository of recorded wisdom, realise that some of the books that we so tenderly cherish as timeless works of genius may not be to your taste. Often the phrasing might appear tortuous or archaic, and perhaps some of the sentences might seem to run on forever, leaving you feeling breathless, befuddled and desperate for a tweet. Perchance some of these illustrious tomes will deal with themes with which you are unfamiliar, issues from an age well before you were born, matters which you might regard as having long since expired.
We, however, beg to differ, and we humbly remind you that nothing worth having is gained without effort. We put it to you that the study of such literary masterpieces is, and will always be, of fundamental import. We share the unshakeable conviction that Great Literature provides a window into the past, holds up a mirror to the present, and opens a portal into the future. We assert this because we perceive Great Literature as being the most eloquent expression of the most enlightened minds engaged in the noblest pursuit of elemental truth.
Great Literature furnishes us with invaluable insights into the best and the worst that we can be. It is our communal confession – a celebration of our successes, a lamentation for our losses. It is a chronicle of our courage and a testament to our tenacity. It is the narrative of humanity writ large with all its triumphs and its tragedies, its twists and its turns.
Great Literature enables us to comprehend those suppressed impulses which can suddenly erupt and transform us into angels, or devils. It teaches us about Good versus Evil and Love versus Hate, Crime and Punishment, and Sin and Salvation. It is an exploration of what makes us tick, both as individuals and as a species, and of the ways in which we, as humans, surpass all other creatures.
Equally, it epitomises the power of words to encapsulate the mysterious and give utterance to the profound. It is the articulation of that inexplicable experience of being consciously alive on a fertile planet in an otherwise insensible universe consisting of interminable space and inanimate matter. It is an incomparable communication of that sense of awe, making it so tangible that even the most mundane of days is suffused with wonder.
It is quite simply the purest illustration of the immense beauty which language can attain in the hands of the most accomplished of authors, thereby encouraging us to seek the sublime within ourselves so that we too can voice our own primordial passions and desires and thus unburden our souls.
And all of this is made possible because at its heart is the power of extraordinary stories and unforgettable characters to transcend the boundaries of any particular genre or style. They excite and inspire us even though they may have no independent existence beyond the pages upon which they were conceived.
Finally, a word to the parents and the carers:
If you want your children to be exposed to the world without being damaged by it; if you want your children to be wise before the fact, rather than after it; and if you want your children to be mature beyond their years, but not old before their time, then please consider this: a great book can help them to see themselves not just as they are, but as they might be.
Great Literature changes lives!
Peter Morrisson currently teaches English at University College Isle of Man. As well as an author of several textbooks on English Literature, he is also a Certified Director of 2D and 3D animated films.
Read Peter’s blogs on how to ace English Language & Literature exams: