The place of literature in education
Why read literature? To many of us, such a question seems as strange as asking “why breathe?” as literature has been part of our life, family, school, and community for as long as we can remember. Of course, there are those who argue that what today’s students need is preparation for the “real world,” but in the push for practical preparedness we sometimes overlook the importance of educating students’ imaginations. Literature offers windows to worlds outside students’ experience as well as mirrors onto the world they already know. Literature also prepares students for the personal challenges and moral dilemmas they are likely to face. We interpret the world constantly in all our experiences every day, so interpreting literature provides a general model for interpretation. Exploring a literary text gives the opportunity to think about various reasons for actions, for how people act and think and react to others. Reading offers us the possibility to do this independently of our personal experiences. It concerns somebody else: fictive persons in a fictive world.
“The study of literature and language could be an opportunity to understand and encourage an even more open and multicultural society”. (Eaglestone 2000: 110) Indeed, linguistic and literate competences are regarded by most as crucial for full participation in a given society. Moreover, claims are made for better cultural understanding of others, benefits for the ethical development of the individual and wider general educational benefits in terms of the development of worthier and more critical citizens. Literature broadens our notions of what it means to be human, and how we could live better as human beings.
In spite of all its perceived importance in education, literature has not always been a school and college subject in the timetable, to be studied through appropriate anthologies and syllabuses of “classic” authors and texts and examined at the end of the course with grades assigned. Reading for pleasure or out of curiosity and private study pre-dated and will no doubt continue long after literature has been disestablished from the educational curriculum or changed out of all recognition.
Literature in language teaching – historical background
Understanding some important points in the historical background of literature in language education might help highlight the issues which have preoccupied and continue to preoccupy this relatively recent field.
Classic literature (in Greek and Latin) was already central to European education when in the nineteenth century growing nationalist interests began to lead to emphasis on the importance of national literatures in the official national language being taught. The discipline which came to be known as English Literature developed mostly through the nineteenth century, first in India and the imperial colonies.
Kramsch and Kramsch (2000) tried to sketch a history of literature in language teaching,...