It is very difficult to agree on the goals of teaching literary texts. In the past, teaching literature was viewed as a way of making people better human beings and better citizens. The purpose of making English Literature a course of study at University College, London in the 1820’s was to moralise, civilise and humanise. In the US, after the civil war, literature was viewed as a ‘repository of moral and spiritual values’. To Yale’s William Lyon Phelps, at the beginning of the 20th century, ‘teaching was preaching’ about Christian values and moral uplift. Classical and modern literature was regarded as a quasi-religious repository of spiritual guidance. To F.R Leavis ‘the serious study of English literature, the great tradition, was the chief weapon against the corruption and vulgarity of mass urban industrial society’
In 1988 , in Teaching Literature : What is Needed Now , a number of English professors offered conflicting views on literary goals , from Helen Vendler arguing that we should teach students to love what we have loved – meaning works of the imagination – to J Hilles Miller declaring that ‘all reading and teaching of literature is theoretical’ . Neither extreme works as a goal for teaching. What if a teacher happens to love Derrida a lot more than Dickens? And what happens to the pure pleasure of primary reading and the open – ended ness of teaching if theory is the central value?
At some level , whether we believe in pleasure , politics or philosophy as the goal , all of us who teach literature believe that it is important not only in education but in life . Long time teachers of literature have testified to the joy their work has brought to their lives and their faith in its future. Leslie Fielder expresses his belief in ‘English for everyone – an introduction to works of the imagination over which all humankind can weep , laugh , shudder and be titillated ; communal dreams , shared hallucinations – which in a time when everything else tends to divide us from each other , join us together , men and women , adults and children , educated and uneducated , black and white , yellow and brown – even , perhaps , teachers and students’
W.B Carnochan says : ‘ A hundred years ago , English departments might list perhaps one course in the novel , but poetry and drama – including Shakespeare , who still occupies the throne room of English literary studies – counted most . At mid – century, under the influence of New Criticism, poetry kept its pre eminence. But after World War II, as literary criticism took a sociology turn, the novel gathered strength at the expense of poetry and drama’
What, then, are the advantages of teaching the novel? Students love stories, especially stories which are rooted in over mass culture. When they find the narrative familiar, they can identify with the characters. American students respond more readily to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while Indian students to The English Teacher . Novels are invaluable as an illustration of culture in context. They offer an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the complex interactions of region, race, gender, class and narrative technique. They create a perfect venue for presenting ideas for discussion and writing assignments, providing in depth ideas about life that can be meaningful to students. Novels can present real life situations which reflect the human condition. As students can relate to the ideas, they begin to think more deeply about the themes, questioning, connecting and developing more complex ideas for writing. This in turn helps to foster critical thinking so important in academia. Reading novels builds content and improves reading speed. It gives a feeling of accomplishment not achieved with...