TEACHING LITERATURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY: The Search for Deep Thought in a Postmodern Culture
I initially began to write this as a paper to finish up a Children's Literature class that I felt I had spent far too much time on already. But as I delved deeper into the reason of why we should not only read, but read well, I found myself chasing a white rabbit down a hole and finding wondrous things on my way. In 21st century Western culture it is easy to drift through life without paying much attention to what is now considered musty old virtue and dull historical account. But if we really take the time to discover the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom we have come into, we will find ourselves enchanted with the ideas we find and the lives of those who applied them. Parts of this essay may seem a bit pedantic, as the requirements for the original paper dictated I include a somewhat thorough survey of literature for children, but I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did researching it (perhaps a little in spite of myself).
Today's society is primarily characterized by the communication of information, regardless of the form. It is hardly necessary, therefore, to build up a case to argue that literacy, or the ability to read, is imperative to know what one is doing today. However, today's society is also characterized by brevity. If a person can manage quite well in the world these days by only knowing how to read, having never read good literature, why should he bother to do so? An examination of the historical use of literature for children, as well as the role of literature among other subjects will follow to discover the case for teaching literature.
The historical record of children's literature
The 18th century emphasized rationalism, logic, and truth that was supposed to lead to morality and virtue in order to preserve a “civilized” society. For the lower classes, however, much of the cheap, available literature came in the form of “vile...half-penny books,” and through evangelical effort the Religious Tract Society was formed and began by producing “cheap repository tracts” for adults. Very soon after its conception, it began to publish the same sort of tracts for children as well.
No one can deny many of these books propagate virtuous and moral principles for children, in addition to exposing them to a good deal of cold logic regarding everyday trials of life. However, as in Maria Edgeworth's The Parent's Assistant, these tracts sometimes did not acknowledge the foundation for morality. The Parent's Assistant, comprised of different short stories, followed the adventures of an overtly moral protagonist and a crafty antagonist well on his way toward the slippery slope of moral compromise. In the end, a moral victory is achieved, the protagonist congratulated on his virtue, and the antagonist meets with destruction. This is fine, but Edgeworth never seems to find the time to mention the ultimate foundation for morality: that is, Christ. The Parent's Assistant communicates that if one does right, he will be met with accolades and perhaps a moderate material gain, instead of communicating the message of Paul in Philippians 3:8: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Hannah More and a few of the other writers for the Religious Tract Society did better in communicating such Gospel truths. More's motive in writing her Stories for the Young retained clear cut, solid Biblical exposition detailing the worthiness of the Christian life, and could not be muddled with morality for morality's sake. For the most part, the types of literature written for children during this time could be categorized by these two differences.
By the 19th century, children's literature in the Victorian age was characterized by two things: the push for the elevation of the masses and a deep sentimentalism. Literature on the whole became much more emotional, and depicted in grim terms the conditions of the poor of the time. As M. Nancy Cutt stated, the Victorians loved a good cry and their children did as well.
Nevertheless, this generation continued to teach or comment on issues that sorely needed reparation at the time. An author named Charles Dickens did much to dictate the focus of Victorian novels through his own stories. The characteristic flow of his books, with the underprivileged protagonist fighting his way through life's many obstacles and overall tone of oppression, became almost a formula for aspiring writers of his generation to follow. Through this literature, many social evils were righted, and the awareness of the upper and middle classes for the plight of the “masses” grew into a genuine focus on the “elevation of the masses.”
In spite of their social work, the Victorians had inherited their predecessors' sense of duty tempered with little of their religion. The elevation of the masses became itself a sort of religion for them, and they went about their duties with a heavy sense of responsibility toward fellow man, with comparatively little thought of God. Their sentimentalism, combined with a morbid sense of duty, seemed to dim the light of the Gospel which the Evangelicals before them had sought to spread all around the world. A few children's writers wove in bits of true religion here and there, but the majority of books shifted from personal improvement and the spread of the Gospel to social improvement and the sentiment of the Gospel. For example, in Hesba Stretton's Alone in London, the main character is a little girl named Dolly, who spreads joy and love wherever she goes—even in the poorest slums of London—but the source of this joy and love is not ever made purely evident. An old man who adopts her is discovered to be her grandfather in a plot twist, and through him Stretton exposits the Gospel to another character. But when Dolly dies, the old man is crippled by grief and emotion. After her death, those who are left to go on decide to do so at the memory of good little Dolly, not through the comfort or strength of Christ. The main point of the story is not to show how one may be joyful even in trial or death, but that the capacity of children's hospitals in London were sadly lacking. While this story may have effected an important social change, it does not do much to spread the power of Christ. So while the Victorians certainly accomplished much to improve the lives of the lower classes, it is uncertain whether their books had much eternal effect on their young readers.
By the 20th century, philosophy reached “full circle” and defenestrated the sentimentalism of the Victorian era to usher in a new age of “modernism.” This philosophy vaguely resembled the rationalism two centuries earlier by insisting that everything could be known through empirical evidence. But the motivation behind using logic and “rational” thought had changed for this age. C. S. Lewis, in his work The Abolition of Man, explained that instead of using logic for seeing morality as the means to preserving society and living the best way possible, logic was turned to subverting “traditional or (as they would say) 'sentimental' values.” Lewis also shrewdly pointed out that “a great many of those who 'debunk'...have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.” “Instinctual” values began to take center stage as the best way to live as humans, and the lustful appetite of man was placed on the throne of society. Moreover, the philosophers of the time took great pride in “seeing through” things, but, as Lewis noted, you cannot go on seeing through things forever, because to see through everything is to see nothing at all.
Mirroring the common thought, children's books began moving away from teaching and more toward delighting. They retained some semblance of “the moral of the story” but began to use a lot of narrative to disguise the moral. Morals themselves even began to change—a “happy ending” to a book consisted of the main character getting everything they ever wanted (or nearly everything they wanted), instead of making a moral triumph, or learning some soul-saving Gospel truth. The characters still endured a great struggle, but in the end were granted all they originally wanted, rather than all they needed.
Today, modern literature is primarily meant to delight children with a good story. There are still many educational books about history, science, etc., but the vast majority of books which could be considered “literature,” rather than textbooks for classroom purposes, are fictional stories geared toward delighting with a simple message woven in if you are careful enough to look for it.
The focus of children's literature has shifted from what the children are reading, to how the children are reading. Perhaps a better word would be “if” the children are reading. In Putting Reading First, a modern handbook for teachers teaching children how to read, the introduction begins with, “In today's schools, too many children struggle with learning to read.” The introduction goes on to explain itself and the handbook's organization, and then ends with this paragraph: “Our understanding of 'what works' in reading is dynamic and fluid, subject to ongoing review and assessment through quality research. This guide begins the process of compiling the findings from scientifically based research in reading instruction, a body of knowledge that will continue to grow over time. We encourage all teachers to explore the research, open their minds to changes in their instructional practice, and take up the challenge of helping all children become successful readers.”
However, one cannot help but notice in reading further that by “successful reader,” this handbook does not mean a reader who will mull over what he has read, evaluate it compared to a standard of morality, and decide for himself whether or not what he has read is good. By “successful reader,” the handbook means a reader that can interpret words and symbols and understand what the author is trying to convey, value judgments optional. Today's society seems to have forgotten what previous generations took for granted: it is not enough for a child to learn to read, he must learn to recognize and apply truth. Rather than merely providing an opportunity for a child to practice his literacy, books for children should provoke further thought and communicate solid, foundational truths upon which children can begin to build their worldview. When he is older, a child may read books that exist in a moral “grey area,” but for the impressionable young reader's mind, he must first be taught truth in order to recognize falsehoods when he is older.
The importance of teaching literature
Historically, it is evident that literature played a large part in shaping young people's minds and the culture around them. But today, the focus has shifted so much toward teaching literacy, that is hard to identify the current reason literature is still taught (whether or not the current reason is the proper reason). There is little quantified research devoted to making a case for teaching literature. However, teachers, particularly those who teach students between the ages of 12-18, must always be ready with an answer to the questions, “Teach, why do we hafta learn this? When am I ever going to use this information for the rest of my life?” In the Appendix to this paper, the transcripts of three interviews appear from teachers who have faithfully taught literature for years. Their collected answers to the questions brought much light to the question, “why should we teach literature?”
These teachers asserted that reading and evaluating literature enhances basic cognitive ability, including critical thinking, memory retention, evaluation and analysis, etc. By having students read a story and make a value judgment on it, literature stretches the mind and causes students to think more deeply and efficiently.
Students can learn anything from deep truths to simple morals by merely reading a book. By employing the strategy of “show not tell,” literature can communicate these principles at a “safe” distance. Jesus used this method with nearly everyone in his time on earth.
“And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand” (Matthew 13:10-13). But to those to whom it was given to understand, the parables spoke abundantly.
A parable was also used to draw King David to repentance, spoken through the prophet Nathan. “And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, 'There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.' Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, 'As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.' Nathan said to David, 'You are the man! ...' David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' And Nathan said to David, 'The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.'” By showing David his sin, rather than telling him in plain terms, David was brought to true remorse and repentance.
More than parables, the written, spoken, and otherwise communicative word plays a pivotal role in the Bible. Jesus is revealed as the Word of God, and through him many are brought to repentance. As Dorothy Sayers writes in Strong Meat, in thirty-three years Christ “passed through the world like a flame,” but used no weapon other than his words of truth.
Reading literature cultivates patience and work ethic. You cannot read a book as quickly as you can the latest tweet from your favorite celebrity, but the latest 140 characters from your favorite celebrity cannot hope to inspire deep, analytical thought that you can apply to yourself. In addition to patience, and work ethic, it cultivates attentiveness. The society that summarily emerged from the advent of sound-bytes and short, self-evident "text-bytes" has proved to be capable of levels of multi-tasking no other generation dreamed possible. Reading a physical book requires a modicum of attentiveness and time, which, for this generation, might otherwise be spent (profitably or not) checking Facebook, reading a few headlines on Twitter, and watching an educational video on YouTube in the amount of time it takes to stand in line at Starbucks. It takes patience and focus to sit down and read one book for a time.
As stated previously, it is not enough to learn to love to read; students must learn to love and recognize the truth. Therefore, especially for the younger reader, good literature must be taught. The next question is, “What is good literature?” Looking at the historical evidence and the opinions of those who have taught and studied literature for years, good literature must meet several standards.
The first is it must be true—that is, not intent upon degrading a person, group, or anything which is good. It must cause deeper thought and spur a person on to applying the thought to himself. Good has become boring in today's culture, and evil has become exciting—but good literature must uphold the ultimate standard of good.
Secondly, good literature needs to balance conveying its message with artistic integrity. This is different from “teaching and delighting.” A good piece of literature should say what it has to say well, otherwise the message will be rendered less effective—just as a piece of literature written well with no message will be ineffective. Likewise, there is also a place for teaching and entertaining in children's literature. A child may enjoy reading an aimless story, but will get no benefit from it. Similarly, a story may be chock full of good things to say, but if it is written as a crashing bore the child will not retain what it says.
Literature remains an important means of conveying thought-provoking content. The fact that our culture is media-saturated and our attention spans have been dramatically shortened does not lessen the importance of teaching children not only how to read, but how to evaluate what they read. The need for communicating has not changed, even if our tolerance level for it has.
Books & Documents
 Cutt, Margaret Nancy. 1979. Ministering Angels: A Study of Nineteenth-century Evangelical Writing for Children. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Five Owls Press.
 Dr. Armbruster, Bonnie B., Fran Lehr, Jean Osborn. 2006. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read: Kindergarten Through Grade 3. [S.I.]: Diane Publishing Co.
 Edgeworth, Maria. 1796. The Parent's Assistant. London: Joseph Johnson.
 Lewis, C. S. 2001. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins.
 McGraw, Eloise Jarvis. 1953. Mara, Daughter of the Nile. New York: Coward McCann.
 More, Hannah. c. 1795. Cheap Repository Tracts, or Stories for the Young. Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.)
 Rosman, Doreen. 1984. Evangelicals and Culture. London: Croom Helm.
 Sayers, Dorothy L. 1939. Strong Meat. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
 Stretton, Hesba. c. 1890. Alone in London.
 The Holy Bible: King James Version. 1995. New York: HarperPaperbacks.
 Ryken, Leland, and Philip Graham Ryken. 2007. The Literary Study Bible: ESV: English Standard Version, containing the Old and New Testaments. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.
I would like to thank each interviewee for her contribution to the research that went into this paper. All three were able to thoughtfully quantify what seems to be the un-quantifiable, and the great deal of care and thought that goes into their work as literature teachers shows a genuine commitment to shepherding their students toward deeper thought in the vein of the Christian worldview.
 Janie Colgate
 Shelly Crider
 Patricia Brunner
I suppose the audience here on apricotpie needs little convincing for what I've written, but I'd love to hear any comments you may have! Thanks for reading.