“We read a lot of literature in high school,” a first-year student explained to me. “And that’s why I don’t like it.”
When I asked her what she had read and how it had been taught, she answered: “‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It shows that slavery is wrong.”
If you didn’t know that already, I thought, you have problems more serious than not understanding literature.
For many years, I taught Northwestern University’s largest undergraduate class, which was devoted to two Russian novels, Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” Like the freshman bored by “Huckleberry Finn,” most students had been taught literature in ways bound to discourage anyone from reading more.
Four soul-killing approaches predominate.
The most common approach is technical. In this approach, the purpose of reading is to line up parts of the text with technical terms, for example, to find the book’s “protagonist” and “antagonist.”
And above all, to find symbols. Reading a masterpiece this way resembles solving a crossword puzzle, and not a difficult one, since anyone can find some symbol.
For example, there’s always water—sooner or later, someone will drink or wash or cross a river—which could mean purity, or baptism, or renewal, or you name it.
It’s easy to teach this way, and there are lots of books—like “The Great Gatsby”—where every page bristles with symbols. But why bother?
2. Simplifying Message
Sometimes teachers choose a work and reduce it to a simple message. Such teachers can make highly complex works, like “Huckleberry Finn,” into banal message carriers:
First impressions are misleading (“Pride and Prejudice”).
Child abuse is wrong (“Jane Eyre”).
Stop moping and do something (“Hamlet”)!
There’s no fool like an old fool (“King Lear”).
But if that’s all these works have to say, why not just read SparkNotes or, still better, memorize the message?
Then there is the judgmental approach, which high school and college teachers increasingly favor. A decade ago, they might have explained that if only divorce laws had been as enlightened as they are now, Anna Karenina would not have had such a hard time.
Today, they summon authors before their stern tribunal and adjudicate where Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Dickens fail to uphold today’s standards.
But if the beliefs one brings to the book are presumed correct, it is impossible to learn anything. It takes time to read Tolstoy, and Milton is hard going.
Why bother if they made errors that today any middle schooler could identify?
4. Document of the Times
Some instructors reduce great works to documents of their times. Dickens shows us the deplorable conditions of 19th-century workers. Yes, but a factory surveyor’s report might do an even better job.
What makes a great work worth reading is what is not limited to its time and place of origin. Its literariness begins where its “documentariness” ends.
Each of these approaches may yield true statements, but none gives good reasons to read literature. I try to show that Dostoevsky’s insights about guilt and responsibility can change the way students approach moral questions.
Read “Karamazov” and you will learn how you deceive yourself. If you want to understand love—and who does not?—there is no better guide than Tolstoy.
And while other disciplines may recommend empathy, great novels offer practice in it. Over hundreds of pages, you identify with people unlike yourself while sharing their thoughts and feelings from within. You rise above your own perspective and imagine how others experience the world.
In the process, you acquire skills that carry over to the rest of your life.
The test of a literature class should be: Do students recognize that great works convey wisdom obtainable nowhere else? Above all, do they want to read more on their own?