Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

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Penman for Monday, December 12, 2016

(This is the full version of a Powerpoint presentation I summarized for my Penman column, and I’m reproducing it here to share the visuals as well, culled from various sources on the Internet; if any of these images are copyrighted, I will be glad to take them down on request, thanks!) 

THANK YOU all for this kind invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today on “The Crucial Role of Language and Literature in the New GE Program.”

I could stand here for the next 20 minutes and deliver the standard academic lecture on why we need to put literature on the GE curriculum. But it would be the kind of lecture you would have heard dozens of times before, filled with the kind of platitudes you could recite in your sleep.

To give you an idea of what this talk could have sounded like, let me quote from what one of my alma maters, the University of Wisconsin, says about the need for literary study:

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“Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.” (http://www.uwstout.edu/english/lit_study.cfm)

I’m sure this all makes perfect sense—indeed, that’s this whole session in a nutshell. Just to belabor the point, of course we need literature, because our students can’t live by math or physics alone. Besides, teachers of literature need jobs.

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But humor me for a minute and allow me to move away from the ridiculously obvious and the brain-deadeningly pedantic reasons, and return to the roots of why literature is important in the first place—in or out of the classroom, in or out of the GE program.

This will be a very short talk, and if you miss anything, don’t worry—at the end of my presentation, I’ll give a copy to the organizers to share with you. So you don’t even need to take notes; just listen.  I won’t be quoting from Shakespeare, or citing any eminent scholars with hyphenated European names. Begging your indulgence, I will simply construct the argument as I would teach it in my own class, on the topic of “Why are we studying literature?”

To begin with, we’re often told that like the other arts, “Literature is what makes us human.” But what exactly does that mean? How does literature humanize us?

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Literature relies on language, and other animals possess and command a form of language, too. Whales, monkeys, elephants, and birds communicate, presumably for the most basic things—food, sex, danger. We might even call their most basic utterances words and phrases of a kind, performing a clear and practical function. They form sequences of meaning, like saying, “There is food down there” or “I want to make a little baby with you.”

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This is language, but it’s not literature as we know literature. Why not? Because literature requires imagination—dreaming of things beyond the immediate and the practical—and furthermore, a medium of transmission and preservation of the products of that imagination. We’re told that animals can dream, but they can’t record and communicate these dreams like we do.

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Literature is our waking dream, a dream we describe and share through words. These dreams—these stories we make up in our minds—can teach, can delight, can disturb, can enrage, can exalt. They can remember and can therefore preserve our memories—our thoughts and feelings—as individuals and as a race.

As far as I know, no other species—nothing and no one else—can do this. Literature makes us human, because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations, which also makes belief in things like Paradise possible.

Without literature, we cannot acknowledge and even talk about our inner selves, our inner lives. That’s something math or physics can’t do—at least not in the way of a poet or a novelist. The appreciation of beauty belongs to this realm of the imaginary, the recognition of pleasing and meaningful patterns in the seemingly abstract.

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The magic of literature lies in how it deals with reality and reason through fantasy and the imagination, and approaches the truth through make-believe, or what we might call the artistic lie. Literature can make use of use of things that don’t exist or things that never happened to talk about things that do—because reality is often too painful to confront directly. As one of my own teachers put it, art (or literature) is “the mirror of Perseus.”

That’s because—if you recall the story of the Gorgons—Perseus could kill Medusa, whose fatal gaze would have turned him to stone, only by using his shield as a mirror. Literature is that shield. By deflecting our gaze and seeming to look at other people, we are able to see the truth about ourselves, in all its harshness and unpleasantness.

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At this point, I’m going to backtrack a bit so I can go deeper into another basic argument why we need literature in any curriculum. The point is no longer just to say that literature makes us human; rather, literature makes us better humans, by teaching us discernment and critical judgment.

Literature is a history of the words that have made sense of our lives. Like the Bible or the Iliad or the Noli and Fili, it shows us at our best and worst, so we can choose how we want to live—whether as individuals or as citizens or as a society.

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To do that—to help us use both our reason and imagination—literature uses language, and language uses words.

Through carefully crafted stories, poems, and essays, literature shows young readers that words are supremely important in becoming a better person. This is especially true at a time when words like friend” have been devalued by Facebook,

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and “hero” by those to whom history, and honor and honesty, especially in public service, no longer mean anything.

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Every entry and every post our students make on Facebook and on Twitter is a test of how well they have learned their language and literature. I’m not talking about their grammar. I’m talking about their sensibility—the way they think and express themselves, the way they deal with other people, especially people holding an adversarial opinion. How careful are they with their ideas, with their choice of words?

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And it isn’t so much they as we who are being tested. How well have we taught them? How deeply have we drawn on the wealth of human experience in literature to impress upon them that life is full of difficult choices and decisions, of hard struggles to be fought and won? To a generation of millennials weaned on instant gratification and on tweeting before thinking, the complexity of life can be a profound discovery.

This is the first and the most important lesson of all literature:

Words have meaning.

And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences.

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Words can hurt.

Words can kill.

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But words can also heal.

Words can save.

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Words make law.

Words make war.

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Words make money.

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Words make peace.

Words make nations.

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Words are the songs we sing to our loved and lost ones.

Words are the prayers we lift up to the skies.

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Words are the deepest secrets we confess.

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Words are what we tell our children the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

Words are all that some of us—especially those whom we call writers—will leave behind.

Speaking of writers, seven hundred years ago, a Persian poet named Hafez wrote a short but wonderful poem:

Even

After

All this time

The Sun never says

To the Earth

“You owe me.”

Look

What happens

With a love like that.

It lights up

The whole

Sky.

This, my friends, is what we teachers—whether of literature or science—do with our students, with every class and every lesson we teach. We light up the sky of their minds with love—the love of ideas, of engagement with the world.

And that is why we need language and literature—not just in our GE programs, but in our lives.

Thank you all for your attention.

3 thoughts on “Penman No. 229: Our Waking Dream—Why We Need Language and Literature

  1. Butch – just shared you on Facebook (talk about the power of words – can you believe I just said that?). I love your writing and as I say on my posting, you are still one of the most amazing teachers – and people – I know.

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