What Students Need to Find Literature Fascinating

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How a focus on story can make great literature as exciting for teens as popular movies.

Enrollment in college English departments is down, with literature concentrations seeing a particularly steep decline in student interest. It may not seem like a big loss. Increasingly, American teenagers regard timeless works of literature as hopelessly boring and their study as having no market value. While this trend doesn’t tell the whole story of the decline in college education in literature, it is surely part of the picture. Why would students pay to study a subject that seems boring and unprofitable to them?

To understand why teenagers find literature so boring, you have to look at how they experience it at school. Too often, instead of helping students overcome challenges such as archaic language and unfamiliar historical context, and bring out the most interesting aspects of a book, literature lessons focus on unnecessary details. . Most of us have taken, or at least heard of, courses where entire periods are devoted to a few sentences of text, or entire units are devoted to locating metaphors or synecdoches. This experience is captured by an internet meme that has been circulating among high school students for over a decade, in which a teacher engages in a senseless overanalysis of a set of blue curtains.1 Instead of leading students to view literature as fascinating, these practices lead them to view reading and studying as excruciating and pointless exercise. Must it be so?

It doesn’t show in the fact that it’s surprisingly different from the attitude most teenagers have towards non-literary fiction, as The Avengers Where Harry Potter. Few would describe watching and discussing TV shows and movies or reading and analyzing popular novels as boring. The main feature that makes these works interesting is their stories. Young people especially invest themselves seriously in rooting for or against certain characters and eagerly await the resolution of conflicts involving important values.

For example, the original star wars is one of the most popular fantasy film trilogies of all time, sparking passionate interest among young audiences nearly forty years after its release. Central to its story is the conflict between Luke Skywalker and his father. Luke is devoted to the cause of the Rebel Alliance, which seeks to overthrow the authoritarian Galactic Empire, and he aspires to become a Jedi Knight like Anakin Skywalker, the father he never knew and believed to be dead. . Once he discovers that his father has in fact become Darth Vader, the Empire’s chief enforcer, Luke works to bring Vader back to the side of good. Vader, meanwhile, tries to persuade his son to join him and seize power over the Empire. Audiences find their conflict compelling even if it’s not entirely clear what the Rebellion or the Empire stand for or why Luke and Vader are so driven by these causes.

For students who have learned the detail analysis method, reading literature in school seems totally independent of reading or watching popular fiction. One is a dry analysis of the trivial and the other is an exciting experience full of entertainment and intrigue. Why not introduce students to great literature by having them read works that contain dramatic conflicts between characters with compelling motivations, and then focus classroom analysis on the story, the characters, and the conflicts?

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Take for example the novel by Victor Hugo Ninety-three. At the heart of the novel, in all its historical and cultural context, is a gripping story which, like star warsrevolves around two soldiers who are like father and son, but involves challenging questions of the type not seen in star wars. The central characters are Gauvain, a Republican army commander struggling to quell a royalist uprising, and Cimourdain, a delegate sent by the government to oversee his campaign and decide his future. Gawain is a brave soldier and a great tactician, but he is merciful to enemy soldiers, especially those who display heroic traits such as bravery. Cimourdain adores Gauvain, whose tutor and essentially father he had been, but disapproves of his clemency, believing that no quarter can be shown to the enemies of the Republic. Thus, the deep personal bond between the two is strained by their disagreement over how to win a war that will decide the fate of the Republic they both support. The presence of the Royalist force commander carries the potential for the disagreement to explode into outright conflict: this is the Marquis de Lantenac, an extraordinary commander who poses a unique threat to the Republic, but also possesses profoundly heroic characteristics. .

The disagreement between Gauvain and Cimourdain stems from their views on deep intellectual issues. Both are going to war for the Republic, but that doesn’t mean they’re in agreement. Cimourdain’s objective is to destroy the old way of life, one dominated by the monarchy, the aristocracy and the clergy. He believes that the ideal Republic can only be secured through ruthless brutality – the murder of all who fight to oppose it. Gauvain, on the contrary, believes in a future republic without war or reprisals, where relations between peoples are defined by the ideal “liberty, equality, fraternity”, and he considers that this ideal of a Republic can only be achieved by practicing liberty, equality and fraternity at all times. This means, for him, killing only the right people and offering clemency to prisoners of war and political enemies.

Their royalist enemies are also driven by a sophisticated worldview and political agenda: they believe that the king, nobility and church are the earthly representatives of God and that their authority must be restored in order to preserve the natural order. To achieve this goal, they are prepared to take brutal action themselves against those who aid the Republic.

Beliefs about deep issues that motivate Ninety-threeThe characters of and the important ramifications their differing viewpoints have when embraced are precisely what makes the novel’s conflicts so fascinating. These conflicts have much more to offer than those of star wars, which, after all, are quite loosely defined. Why does Vader side with the Empire? We are not offered many explanations. Why are the rebels fighting? It’s unclear; mostly, they’re just fighting against the domination of the Empire. On the other hand, the war of Ninety-three between republicans and royalists is not just a physical clash between two armies, one of which is supposed to be considered good and the other bad. War is a conflict of worldviews – one based on the equality of all men, the other based on hierarchy and authority. The future of France will be radically different depending on the winner. The conflict within the Republican ranks, between Gauvain and Cimourdain, is a clash between two distinct visions of the realization of an ideal Republic. It matters a lot which vision wins, of course, but their conflict also involves the question of how the proponents of these two visions can cooperate, if one of them is more practical in wartime than the other. another, and if they are so fundamentally incompatible that they must turn the love of guardian and child, practically of father and son, into a deadly conflict.

READ ALSO: Ayn Rand on the Moral Foundations of the Berlin Wall

Of course, there are challenges that must be overcome today in order to access the history of Ninety-three. It is set in 1793, during the French Revolution, and assumes some degree of historical knowledge of the period. Readers should know the major events of the French Revolution, some of the technology and culture of that time, and the basic geography of France. To really engage with the thinking and ideals of the characters, it’s also helpful to know the political and moral ideas that were in vogue at the time before reading. Modern audiences may be surprised by ideas like the idea that monarchy and nobility were put in their place by God, and it may help to already know that this was a belief that was essentially taken for granted for many years. many centuries. There are also terms and language that would be unfamiliar to a 21st-century reader, and confusing passages that readers unaccustomed to 19th-century novels won’t know how to navigate.

Most teens need the help of a teacher to overcome these challenges and immerse themselves in the fascinating story of Ninety-three. But to be truly absorbed, they need a teacher who sees understanding the story and the depth of its characterizations as the goal of reading the novel. They don’t need a teacher who uses the detail analysis method, which can make even a fascinating story like Ninety-three come across as boring and completely different from the thrilling experience of watching a blockbuster. They need a teacher who can bring stories to life by directing their attention not primarily to writing techniques and literary devices, but to the issues and ideas that motivate the characters and bring them into conflict with each other. others. They need a teacher who can inspire conversation about the ideas and meaning of a great work of literature and the fascinating connections they can make between these and their own lives.

With this type of orientation, students will find the experience of reading Ninety-three be as fun and enjoyable as watching star wars — and they’ll begin to see that there are values ​​they can glean from great literature that just aren’t available in popular fiction.

Image: “The Horrors of War”, by Eugène Froment and Henry Woods, is a woodcut from the periodical The graphicApril 18, 1874, illustrating the first part, book 4, chapter 7 of Ninety-three by Victor Hugo. Public domain image (cropped) courtesy of Paris Musées.

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Footnotes

  1. I could not identify where or when this meme (which contains profanity) originated. The first source I found was a Tumblr post from 2011.
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