Literature makes a great contribution to our culture, but should it be taught in high school? That question is the genesis for a new book, Lit Up by David Denby. (“Saved by the Bell,” by William Giraldi, New Republic, March 2016, pgs. 66-68.) As a former high school English teacher, I’ve asked the same question. Is there is any proof that adding Shakespeare to the curriculum will foster a love of the classics? In 2013, “between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books [were] published… in the U. S. alone.” (Ibid pg. 66.) But according to Forbes magazine, the eyes of most teenagers were on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.
I taught high school before the advent of social media, but even then, I felt teaching the Bard to young minds was an uphill battle. On the question of relevance, my students seemed to ask, “What is Hamlet to me or I to Hamlet?” “To broaden your minds,” was my reply, a response for which I was awarded a fishy eye.
The English poet Mathew Arnold, wrote. “Literature is communion, pleasure and intimations of wisdom.” But, he went on to observe, it couldn’t delete despair, mend a wound or cure dread. (Ibid pg. 67.) Pragmatically, literature is useless, which is why Chekhov admired it. “Only what is useless is pleasurable.” (Ibid pg. 68.) Both men are right. Each time we attempt to turn literature to something useful, we reduce it to propaganda, a moral lesson or a “for profit” enterprise, which is the antithesis of art for art’s sake.
Literature can’t help kids who are stressed by their environments, either. At best literature is a diversion. At best, it takes readers to places beyond their ordinary experiences. True, as Denby discovered for his book, there are teachers who, by dint of will, can light a candle in the mind of a student. Nonetheless, as one who has toiled in this field, I believe children who read come from families who read. A love for literature isn’t baked into our DNA. Children grow curious and learn when they see adults turning pages.