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Literature Has No Uses

Publication Date: 2013-07-05

This is an excerpt from "Literature Has No Uses," in Who's In Charge? A Teacher Speaks her Mind (Heinemann 1994). It issues a challenge to anybody who teaches Literature.

Very early in my teaching career I taught at a technological university. My freshman engineering students, able readers all, hated English class as much as any reluctant reader I have ever encountered. It became my mission to find wonderful words--to demonstrate the power of language--to them. Every day I wrote snippets on the board for their wonder, amazement, laughter. And every day I worried and fretted over what novel we would read in the spring. And then Harper's ran an excerpt of Norman Mailer's On the Steps on the Pentagon, announcing the book would be published simultaneously in hardback and paperback.

I read that magazine excerpt and knew that I had found our book. My professorial colleagues stewed and fretted and muttered, "Well, yes, it is powerful, but is it Literature?" My students and I read that book--we laughed, argued, fumed, worried, and reached no consensus. We were moved, angered, challenged, and, I think, changed by that book.

I told my students about the faculty concern that the book might not be Literature but that if it wasn't then I had no idea what Literature was. And then, weeks after we'd finished the book and moved on to others, On the Steps of the Pentagon won the Pulitzer Price for Literature and the National Book Award. My students, the fellows who hated English, came dashing into the room to congratulate me. I think they must have been nearly as pleased as Norman Mailer. I never taught the book again. It was a book that was perfect for those particular students at that particular moment. And the next term, the book, certified Literature, was on the reading list in half a dozen Literature courses at the university.

Do I contradict myself? First I say "Don't make 25 third- or eighth- or tenth-graders all read the same book," and then I tell of making 100 college freshmen all read the same book. College freshmen have tougher constitutions and they are a whole lot easier to teach, mold, coerce, and dominate than eighth-graders. . . .

As a profession we find it easier to run for cover than to stand and fight. When governors and industrialists announced their concern for excellence in the schools, for example, instead of pointing out that these emperors of excellence were naked, my professional organization issued an excellence sweatshirt. I worry that at this very moment they might be appointing a joint subcommittee to figure out ways to turn such [then-Secretary of Education] William Bennett favorites as The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Yearling, Ivanhoe and The Virginian into memo pads. Or a bumper sticker.

As for me, I want my T-shirt to read "Literature has no uses." Certainly it is foolish to call on Literature to redress the trade deficit, increase the gross national product, and help kids say "No." Worse than foolish, it is wrong. . . .

Before we try to decide what the kids should read and how they should read it, maybe we'd do well to think about why we want them to read. What is this thing called Literature, and why do we want kids to do it? That is a serious question, one every teacher should face. And I'm not talking about such tripe as pre-reading, setting purposes, and getting the lesson objective on the board. One of our professional journals printed an unwittingly hilarious article that should be the final word on pre-reading piffle. The punchline to the good professor's advice was that if the children were going to read about ducks, then the teacher could set the purpose by waddling into the room like a duck. Twenty years in classrooms from grades 1 through 14 have proven to me that when we bring the best words possible to particular students at a particular ready moment in their lives, that is a great big lolloping enough. There's no need to quack, waddle, or pop. . . .

People get nervous when I poke fun at Sir Walter Scott. But I would advise any defenders to pick up Ivanhoe and read it before sending me their angry letters. Nobody reads Ivanhoe these days, but nobody wants to be quoted as denouncing it either. I asked teachers, librarians, and professors from all over the country about Mr. Bennett's list and the even-more-ridiculous Summertime Favorites list put forth by the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Would you believe The Pilgrim's Progress as a summertime favorite for seventh- and eighth-graders?) The general reaction was one of relief: "Yes, we do this one and this one. . . . " Doing a book, of course, means watching a movie, making puppets, listening to the teacher read aloud, answering questions, looking up vocabulary. Doing is far different from reading.

When I phoned a friend long distance recently and told her, "You must read Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life--and while you're at it read Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception, I talked about the Wolffs' incredible memirs of childhood for half an hour without ever mentioning setting, plot, theme, or whatever. That's just not the way real people read real books. Not when they are really excited by them, anyway.

For me, reading, like writing, is a private act. I regard committees as the last refuge of the scoundrel, and collaboration is just a fancy word for committee. Certainly there are times when beginning readers help each other learn to read; there are times when passages scream to be read aloud to a friend. But ask yourself: "When was the last time you and 24 other people sat down and read the same book together? I can't even get my husband to read the same books I do. And I sure don't know 24 other people who want to read the books I want to read. When I want to read them. Once I actually tried to get about 20 people all involved in the same story. When Max Apple's "Stranger at the Table" appeared in Esquire, I was so moved by the story I photocopied it and sent it to everybody I knew. I mean that quite literally. I was working in California at the time and all my ex-colleagues in New York began getting thick envelopes with the imperative "READ THIS!" scrawled on the 10-page story inside. I was surprised when I didn't get ecstatic phone calls or letters back. I thought at least half a dozen people would report that the story inspired a moment of epiphany. But then I made a few calls and I could sense people were as puzzled as hell. I'm not Jewish, they weren't Jewish, so how come I was sending them this story about keeping Kosher? A few people said, "Uh, it was interesting." I got so wound up in the whole thing that I ended up writing Max Apple to clarify an argument I had with my boss over that story and another one he wrote. I'm not sure Apple's reply was at all clarifying, but it sure was fun.

The only other time I wrote to an author was when I was a college freshman and I asked E. M. Forster a straightforward question about "The Celestial Omnibus." He sent me a straightforward answer, and I was startled by my professor's astonishment when I showed him Forster's reply. "Why would you do that?" he demanded. Ever since, I have wondered if maybe that's why teachers like teaching dead authors: smart-aleck kids can't write letters behind their backs. And all that makes me think I'd like to write Tobias Wolff. I really want to know if that sneaking, lying, irrepressible boy is okay. I care a lot about that boy. I feel certain any teacher would.

In The Call of Stories, Robert Coles quotes William Carlos Williams' worry that teachers elicit dependence rather than independence in their students. "When you graduate from college and read a book, whose office hours do you visit when you have a question?" Do we convince our students that they need either a teacher or Cliff's Notes to read a book? Will they ever be tempted to pick up a book without one of us peering over their shoulders? Do we ever convince them that reading can be a whole lot of fun?

We must beware of what Walker Percy calls the "busy disregard" of the tourist. He is so preoccupied with his camera or how much to tip or whether to drink the water--the mechanics of the matter--that he misses the foreign locale entirely. Literature teachers are in danger of that same "busy disregard"--getting caught up in the mechanics of Literature and missing the point of why anybody would want to read.

Back in the '70s I polled 600 seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders, asking them a number of questions about what Language Arts is and why they are required to study it. The student response to "How can language arts help you when you get out of school?" was depressingly utilitarian. The majority of students felt that Language Arts was the ticket to getting a job--in the narrowest sense: "L.A. trains you to fill out job applications and to write business letters." One hundred and thirty-eight students mentioned everyday survival skills such as understanding prescriptions and recipes. A sizable number thought L.A. would be useful only if a person wanted to be a teacher of L. A., a secretary, or a newscasters. Thirty-four students answered this question with a flat, "It can't." Forty-five students didn't reply.

I challenge you to ask students you know a similar question: "Why do we read? But don't do it if you haven't first asked yourself---and been able to answer, "Because occasionally I come across a book that knocks my socks off."

Kurt Vonnegut once proposed that anybody running for the school board should be hooked up to a lie detector and made to prove that he'd read a book--all the way through--since graduating from high school. I'd like to propose a similar sort of test for Literature teachers. Ask Yourselves, "What piece of literature have you read for the first time in the last year that knocked your socks off?" It is important for your students that you encounter such literature. It is even more important for yourself.

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