This essay was originally broadcast on Vermont Public Radio, April 29, 2010, and you can listen to it here.
Recently I read [in Education Week] that the National Council of Teachers of English was looking for volunteers for an ad hoc task force to gather evidence about why literature should continue to be taught in schools.
That’s because there’s a not unreasonable effort underway to establish common core measurable standards that would shape what’s taught in English and Language Arts classes in U.S. schools. What’s shocking to me is that, in light of that effort, someone would feel – perhaps with justification – that it’s necessary to defend teaching literature. But experience has shown that knowledge and skills that aren’t evaluated by the high-stakes tests that assess students’ academic performance can quickly get squeezed out of the school schedule.
Perhaps the author of the commentary wanted to present arguments in favor of teaching literature that are themselves measurable because the only argument she makes is the compelling need to improve American students’ poor reading scores. As she accurately points out, they are disappointingly – even alarmingly – low. She notes that the best way to make stronger readers is to have them read more, and the best way to do that is – hold on to your hats – to have them read books, not just articles or short snippets on the web. (Research shows that reading on the web hardly rises to the level of even skimming, and bears little resemblance to what’s involved in reading a novel, biography, or history book.)
But the rationale for reading books in English class is not limited to the important goal of promoting strong reading skills. For generations reading literature has also been the way that American students have learned their country’s history and world history, how they learned about morality (by reading about virtuous and not-so-virtuous people), how they learned about good and bad leaders, and how they learned about the dangers of pride, greed, and other human foibles.
The same should be true today. Moreover, reading books – fiction and nonfiction – also teaches critical thinking skills — that is, the ability to analyze information from various sources and form conclusions for oneself. Long ago some Englishman said that the purpose of education was to enable some one to tell when a person was speaking rot. I think that’s a pretty good definition of critical thinking, and Lord knows, we are still in great need of the ability to tell when someone is speaking rot.
Reading literature also teaches, among other things, empathy: it puts us in another person’s shoes, whether that person be Anne Frank, Holden Caulfield, or a conflicted young man named Hamlet. And certainly society could use a bit more empathy these days. Literature enlarges our lives, it gets us out of ourselves, and at the same time, it helps us see ourselves more clearly. In short, not only does literature make us better readers. It also makes us better citizens and future employees, and most importantly, it helps us live our lives.