Language and Literature: A symbiotic relationship Teaching language through iterature: Problems and Principles (Part 3) [Archives:2003/644/Education]

June 23 2003

Dr. Damodar Thakur
Professor and Chairman
Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Sana'a

Summary of Part 2

The art of thematic organization of ideas in writing can be imbibed by the learners of EFL by an intensive, sustained and assimilative exposure to good samples of organized non-literary writing so that the input of literary texts can give quicker and more lasting results. The energy and vitality in the use of the vast mechanics of expression with overpowering vitality can come from a study of literary texts which functions as a mega nutrient to enrich our knowledge of the language. Literature can sharpen our analytical awareness of the structure of a language.

As far as teaching about language is concerned, literature can sharpen our analytical awareness of the structure of a language by providing elegant examples of the patterns and structures in that language. This does not mean that literature can and should replace grammar; it only means that literature can supplement and invigorate the analytical awareness to be imparted by grammar and that an involved reading of judiciously selected literature can not only develop excellence in the use of language, it can also enrich our analytical awareness of how language functions at the level of grammar.
It is often thought mistakenly that by doing functional courses in language, i.e., in reading, writing, grammar and the like, students should acquire a reasonable degree of the mastery of the basic mechanisms of the language before they should start reading literature. The complexity and creativity in the use of language in literature is of a much higher order than in the day-to-day use of language and students should build a solid linguistic foundation before they build a superstructure. This attitude seems to have its roots in the unstated but widely held mistaken assumption about literature. For most decision-makers and syllabus-designers responsible for the teaching of English in schools and colleges, literature is and has been unabridged classics and nothing but classics and it has always been assumed that if someone wants to read literature, he must read great milestones of literature like Hamlet, Tom Jones, The Waste Land or Waiting for Godot in their original form. But if we consider texts from the point of view of their literariness, we will soon realize that the boundary line between literary and non-literary texts is vague and elusive and that literature should better be understood as a cline with genres like poetry and drama at one end of that cline and items like jokes, anecdotes, proverbs, parables, aphoristic and epigrammatic quotations, and children's stories about mermaids, fairies and magicians at the other end. The view taken in this paper is that anything that is emotively appealing and imaginatively sustaining, anything that appeals to us as something more inspiring and elevating than the characteristic use of language in our day-to-day life can legitimately be considered to be literature in its wide sense. In this sense, children's literature is also literature. And as literature is something larger than classics, i.e., as literature includes children's literature as well, we cannot deny that literature can be used for teaching language right from the beginning.

The current practice of teaching literature
The arguments stated above, i.e., the arguments in favor of teaching literature should not be taken to mean, however, that literature should continue to be taught the way it is being taught in most places in L2 countries, in many universities in Yemen, for example. In such universities, teaching literature is, in my opinion, only an exercise in futility, if not an enormous waste of human and financial resources. This strong statement of mine is based on the following observations.

1. The teaching of literature in many of these universities is marked by an escape from the text. What the student does in such cases is to collect from histories of literature and from similar other sources, information about the life of the author, the type and extent of likely influences on his writings, the social and cultural contexts in which the author wrote, and the literary traditions and conventions related to his work and so on, but pays only marginal attention, if any at all, to the actual text being studied. I. A. Richards tried to demonstrate that the traditional type of extrinsic information about authorship, date, etc, inhibited the reader's capacity to read and respond naturally to a text and demonstrated that a text could be efficiently evaluated exclusively on the basis of its intrinsic information, i.e., information contained in the text itself. There is a great deal of truth in Richards' views regarding the dispensability of extrinsic information about a literary text. Extrinsic information about a text can and does inhibit a spontaneous response in many cases, particularly in the case of students who have yet to acquire the maturity and the literary competence necessary for evaluating a text. It would be wrong, however, to assert, as Richards did, that the evaluation of a literary text ought to be based exclusively on intrinsic information. Literature is born out of a dynamic interaction of the man, the moment and the milieu. So, in spite of all that has been and can be said against the biographical school of criticism, it cannot be altogether denied that the man who suffers and the artist in him who creates are often so intricately linked and so much mutually dependent that no advanced study of a literary text can ever be meaningful unless we relate his writings to those incidents and episodes in his life which are likely to have influenced the quality and the structure of those writings. Similarly, no one can deny that studying a text in the context of the literary and cultural traditions in which it was written is often helpful. Discussing the role of tradition in the shaping of a poet's sensibility, Eliot (1951:14) once said that the historical sense which forms the basis of being traditional involves “a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presentness” and is something that urges a poet to “write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” A study of the cultural tradition certainly should lead to a better understanding of a great work of literature. What is really unfortunate is the fact that in many cases collecting information about the biographical details of the author and about the context in which it was produced becomes a substitute for an intensive reading of the prescribed text. My survey shows that there are a substantial number of students who pass the examination in literature courses, in a course like Renaissance Drama or Twentieth Century Novel, for example, and even get good grades in these courses without reading the whole novel or the whole play even once.

2. Something related to this is the fact that what students of literature generally acquire at the end of the course, if anything at all, is knowledge about literature and not knowledge of literature. A certain amount of knowledge about literature may be desirable at an advanced stage of reading literature but what unfortunately happens is that students are fed with the untimely diet of critical material before they can enthusiastically and perceptively read and enjoy literature. Brumfit's observation in this connection is worth quoting. He says:

The first stage will be concerned with enabling students to 'experience' literature; the second will enable them to describe, explain or otherwise account for the experience. But, in my view, the error of much literature teaching is that, in practice, it reverses this process. (Brumfit 1985:122)

Students get ideas about critical concepts first and then try to fit the texts being studied under any one of the critical concepts. They read about their texts first and then read those literary texts, if they read them at all. As Brumfit has said “Only when we have responded to literature, should we be asked to understand literary theory, whether structuralist, deconstructionist or traditional.” The vital fact that gets ignored in this situation is that literature teaching is about abilities and not knowledge.
To be continued