Wednesday, April 12, 2006

On teaching English Literature...

On teaching English Literature...

One of the struggles all High School English teachers seem to face is choosing texts, poems and short stories that will “interest” the students. When justifying a text on the course syllabus, I have said (as well as many other English teachers), “The students really enjoyed this play, novel, etc.” We certainly want our students to “enjoy” what we are studying. But here’s some food for thought… what if we had a mandate to teach students how to enjoy… or dare I say, what to enjoy? I am reading a book by C.S. Lewis on English education and he raises this point. Besides being a writer of fantasy and science fiction, Lewis was also an Oxford Don, Cambridge Professor and renowned literary critic; on the topic of English education, Lewis presents an interesting argument in his book, “The Abolition of Man”. He cites Classical, Christian and Eastern tradition to make his case. For example, he quotes Aristotle who states that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Plato writes in his Republic that a well-trained youth will have a “just distaste” for what is ugly and have a “delighted praise” for what is beautiful (29). Lewis goes on to cite other writings from Hindu and Oriental origin as well as Christianity. Lewis was obviously reacting to the logical consequence of the emerging modernism of his day: post-modern subjectivity. He calls this “the doctrine of the objective value,” which he explains as “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false” (31). What Lewis is proposing is that educators need to show students how to appreciate good, beautiful literature and how to loathe ugly and poorly done literature. The post-modern asks, “Who decides the criteria to determine what is beautiful and what is ugly?” Lewis would say no one “decides” it is discovered because it can be discovered, learned and passed on. Lewis cites an anecdote about Coleridge visiting a waterfall with two travellers. One traveller calls the waterfall “sublime” and the other calls it “pretty”. Coleridge endorses the former and rejected the latter. Most of us who have been inculcated with post-modern thinking cringe at this notion.

We have difficulty accepting the legitimacy of “sentiments”—we will not argue with Coleridge if he accepted the one traveller calling the waterfall a cataract but rejecting the other calling it a tsunami. Reason tells up it is not a tsunami. We have trouble with the notion that sentiments of beauty and the sublime can be as definitively recognized. Lewis believes we need to train our students to recognize beauty. Educators are unwilling to “teach” sentiment. In fact, we sometimes relegate sentiment to a role of least significance. Lewis writes, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts” (27). Students need to learn what merits praise and what deserves disdain.

As Christians, we recognise that God is the ultimate standard of beauty. He is the one worthy of ultimate praise. By teaching our students to learn how to give praise to that which is worthy, we are helping our students appreciate Him who is ultimately worthy.

“All great art is the expression of man’s delight in God’s work, not his own.” John Ruskin

Work Cited: Lewis, C.S.. The Abolition of Man. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1996.

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