Introducing Your Child To Literature

Over the past few years I have wondered if this is the last era of fine literature. In fact as a writer I’m wondering if I should even bother to write a novel or anything of that sort, because I’m wondering if anyone will read it. Most people tend to have a very low attention span, and I imagine the next generation coming up and those after that are only going to get worse due to the information flow on the Internet and the speed at which all of this content is delivered. I’m not the only one that thinks this you can ask any English teacher in high school, they will tell you the same thing. Okay let’s talk.

As parents, it’s important for us to introduce our children to literature. Get them to read more, and even if they start out merely reading Harry Potter, maybe that is a worthy endeavor. No, I don’t wish to promote the occult, witchcraft, or anything else, but if the Harry Potter series gets children to read and reading at a very young age, then I would say it’s all good. Nevertheless, parents also need to introduce their kids to the classics, all those literary classics that we’ve read. They may not read them in school, and I imagine that the way our schools and education system is set up today will be different in the decades to come.

I can see a bubble bursting in higher-end education at our colleges and universities due to the student loan program, and the increase of tuition cost at 8% per year, along with all the new online lectures available without actually attending the school. If our high schools and colleges are not there to assign kids to read these voluminous classic literature books, then what motivation would get them to do so? You see my point yet? This is why it is imperative to get your kids introduced to literature at the earliest possible time.

Maybe you could start out with audio books, or read to them shorter versions of the classics? After they read the shorter versions, perhaps you can find a DVD of a play or movie which was made from that literature. The more you get them interested in literature, the better they will do in life, because they will be able to learn lessons from the literature without having to learn them the hard way in real life. That’s pretty valuable, and yet I believe our education system in the present, and certainly in the future will fail us in that regard. Please think on this.

Why Bother With Literature? Students And Teachers And Writing In China

When I was teaching literature and writing courses at a private liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, members of the faculty were asked to prepare a statement justifying the existence of their major programs. Our vice-president at the time (there was an incredible turn-over in presidents and vice-presidents at that college) seemed to be serious about education* and directed the faculty to answer specific questions regarding the importance of what we were doing. Since I was the coordinator of the English program (a program situated in the Humanities Department which included literature, philosophy, religion, speech, film studies, and media communications), I provided answers which I felt underscored the importance of what we were doing.

I still feel that these are important issues for an English program, whether standing separately as an individual department in a large university or as a part of a humanities division in a small college. I have taught writing and literature in two private colleges, two community colleges, and one major university in the USA. Time has not, despite the current and fashionable interest in technology, eroded the importance of concentrating in writing, literature, and language studies. This belief, therefore, caused me to congratulate my students in at a level-two technological university in Anshan, China– and in Ningbo, China, at a level-three technological university, which is associated with a level-one university in Hangzhou–for majoring in English and for taking literature courses. The reasons I have done so can be found in the answers to the questions put to me below. I have, where necessary, generalized the answers to include a scale that is more global.

A. When students finish an English Language and Literature program, they will be able to do what?

1. These students will be able to realize that literature, like any art, is not created in a vacuum but reflects the culture and times in which it was created. This will cause them not only to realize, but to show the importance of being able to communicate thoughts and ideas in a cogent form so that the authors’ messages and feelings can be understood and appreciated for centuries.

2. These students will be able to write and to speak in a scholarly manner about important issues that not only exist today but have existed for centuries, from before the time of Homer to the present. They will be able to argue effectively because they will have learned how to back up opinion with research findings, which they have learned to, quote and document correctly. They will have learned how to communicate clearly and effectively so that their own ideas do not become lost or ignored.

3. These students will be able to conduct research in many fields because they have learned the correct methods of researching, documenting, and incorporating findings in research papers. Those who have studied creative writing will also be able to create their own literature; this is daring and important because it involves digging deeply into themselves and fashioning into art something that did not exist before.

B. Why should students study with you as a professor?

1. Students should study with me as a professor only if they have a thirst for knowledge and an interest in expanding their horizons, which is what education is supposed to be about.

2. Students should not be caught up in the appearance of learning, trapped only in the superficial rhetoric but should, instead, be aware of the hard work that is needed to take charge of, and take responsibility for, their own education. They should be aware of the fact that education is about life-long learning and life-skills, that it is more than mere job training and that it is not finite.

3. If students study writing with me, they should be willing to face the possibility that writing and publishing is a difficult, painful process, and that creative writing requires digging into the pain and suffering of our memories because that is usually the source of the energy required to be creative. It is an uncomfortable but necessary part of the creative process, and this takes not only honesty but also great courage.

C. Why should students study in an English Language and Literature Program? [or Department of Foreign Languages]

1. Students should study in an English Language and Literature Program because it is essential, particularly in areas of the world where writing skills are reportedly the weakest, that they be able to communicate clearly, correctly, and effectively on the level of intelligent university students and, eventually, the level of university graduates who are able to compete with graduates from universities worldwide. They would become aware of the world-wide importance of the language or vocabulary with which they communicate.

2. They should study literature as well as language in order to realize that literature reflects the times, mores, and philosophies of the authors — that its subject can be as varied as the multiple points of everyday life, with which it is connected, not as talk show topics between covers but as serious analysis of human endeavors and foibles.

3. They would recognize and appreciate the extent of the contributions of literary figures such as William Shakespeare who utilized or created words with a genius unknown before or since his time, whose vocabulary was the largest of any known English writer, and whose First Folio of his plays gave to all speakers of English more new words than any other single source**. With this recognition and appreciation they would, hopefully, build a bridge between the past and the future so that the monumental achievements of the past are not lost in the glitz and glitter of a technology that remains in the service of a transitory, materialistic world but are maintained as a foundation for a future rich with aesthetic and intellectual possibilities.

“Among the most important developments in contemporary global culture is the arrival of Western literary criticism and literary theory in China.” This statement is made by W. J. T. Mitchell in his preface to the Chinese edition of A HANDBOOK OF CRITICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE, printed for China by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press – a text I am now using for seniors in Research Methods in Ningbo. He adds: “There is arguably no greater force in producing understanding between peoples than the transmission of literary traditions – the great heritage of narrative, lyric, and prose forms that give cultures their distinctive character.” This is why, I believe, that more literature courses are needed in certain universities in China, not only one semester of British literature and one semester of American but two semesters of each. More important, students in all areas of studies should be exposed to world literature and mythology. When I taught literature in Anshan, I had to cram two semesters of information and small snippets from the primary literature into one semester. I complained about this, but to no avail. I tried to change textbooks but was not allowed to do so. This was when I was still naive enough to believe that students were attending the university to receive an education. Many students here in Ningbo have referred to me as a serious professor. Since I often make jokes in class, I assumed that they were not referring to a lack of sense of humor. You see, I had taken it for granted that all professors, foreign or domestic (Chinese), were serious about educating in the classroom. Boy, was I naive.

When I was an undergraduate back in a small college in Illinois (my home state or, as I like to call it, God’s Country), I heard our instructor state that a college diploma should be handed out with a birth certificate. I never forgot his remark. What I would like to recommend today, therefore, is that those universities on both sides of the Pacific who are more concerned with maximizing profits than they are with providing a real education — who intimidate professors who try to maintain intellectual standards –to take this simple step: eliminate all course work for students, charge the students and/or their beleaguered parents tuition for the equivalent of four years tuition, and hand to them the diploma. No pretenses. No false claims. Then those universities sincerely interested in educating students with real standards can hire the best professors and recruit only the serious students who really. . . really. . . really want to learn for the sake of knowledge. Then knowledge. . . not only virtue. . . becomes its own reward.

So much of literature, and so much of life, is based on the foundations of world mythology and the greatest literature that the geniuses of the mighty word have produced. This is what it means to be educated for the sake of being educated, not just trained for employment. Once we accept this, we might get back to what education and the teaching of literature is really supposed to be about.

We can then get serious.

* This “serious” vice-president later allowed students who had failed courses (one male had failed four courses in our English department and one female had failed two of mine alone) to walk across the graduation stage because, as he admitted to the faculty the next day in a meeting, he was intimidated by their parents.

**[See THE STORY OF ENGLISH: 3rd Revised Edition by

Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil

New York: Penguin Book, 2002]

English Literature: Why Should We Study It?

When we dip into the rich variety of novels, poems, and plays which constitute English Literature we are reading works which have lasted for generations, or centuries, and they have lasted because they are good. These works say something worth saying, and say it with artistry strong enough to survive while lesser works drop into obscurity.

Literature is part of our cultural heritage which is freely available to everyone, and which can enrich our lives in all kinds of ways. Once we have broken the barriers that make studying literature seem daunting, we find that literary works can be entertaining, beautiful, funny, or tragic. They can convey profundity of thought, richness of emotion, and insight into character. They take us beyond our limited experience of life to show us the lives of other people at other times. They stir us intellectually and emotionally, and deepen our understanding of our history, our society, and our own individual lives.

In great writing from the past we find the England of our ancestors, and we not only see the country and the people as they were, but we also soak up the climate of the times through the language itself, its vocabulary, grammar, and tone. We would only have to consider the writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boswell, Dickens, and Samuel Beckett side by side to see how the way writers use language embodies the cultural atmosphere of their time.

Literature can also give us glimpses of much earlier ages. Glimpses of Celtic Ireland in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, or of the Romans in Shakespeare’s plays, for example, can take us in our imaginations back to the roots of our culture, and the sense of continuity and change we get from surveying our history enhances our understanding of our modern world.

Literature can enrich our experience in other ways too. London, for example, is all the more interesting a city when behind what we see today we see the London known to Dickens, Boswell and Johnson, or Shakespeare. And our feeling for nature can be deepened when a landscape calls to mind images from, say, Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, or Ted Hughes.

The world of English literature consists, apart from anything else, of an astonishing array of characters, from the noble to the despicable – representations of people from all walks of life engaged in all kinds of activities. Through their characters great authors convey their insights into human nature, and we might find that we can better understand people we know if we recognise in them characteristics we have encountered in literature. Perhaps we see that a certain man’s behaviour resembles that of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, or a certain woman is rather like The Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Seeing such similarities can help us to understand and accept other people.

Good works of literature are not museum pieces, preserved and studied only for historical interest. They last because they remain fresh, transcending as well as embodying the era in which they were written. Each reader reading each work is a new and unique event and the works speak to us now, telling us truths about human life which are relevant to all times.

We don’t have to read far before we find that a writer has portrayed a character who is in some way like us, confronting life-experiences in some way like our own and when we find ourselves caught up with the struggles of a character perhaps we are rehearsing the struggles to come in our own lives. And when we are moved by a poem it can enrich us by putting words to feelings which had lain dormant for lack of a way of expressing them, or been long-forgotten in the daily round of the workplace, the supermarket, the traffic jam, and the TV News.

We can gain a lot from literature in many ways, but the most rewarding experiences can come in those moments when we feel the author has communicated something personally to us, one individual to another. Such moments can help validate our personal experience at a depth which is rarely reached by everyday life or the mass media.

So why do we need to study English Literature, instead of just reading it? Well, we don’t need to, but when visiting a country for the first time it can help to have books by people who have been there before by our side.

When we start to read literature, particularly older works, we have to accept that we are not going to get the instant gratification that we have become used to from popular entertainment. We have to make an effort to accommodate to the writer’s use of language, and to appreciate the ideas he is offering. Critics can help us make that transition, and can help fill out our understanding by telling us something about the social climate in which a work was written, or about the personal circumstances of the author while he was writing it.

We are not going to enjoy every literary work, and there may be times when we find reading a critic is more interesting than reading the actual work. Reading the work of a good critic can be edifying in itself. Making the effort to shape our own thoughts into an essay is also an edifying experience, and just as good literature lasts, so do the personal benefits that we gain from studying and writing about it.

Whether we choose to study it or read it for pleasure, when we look back over our literature we are looking back over incredible richness. Not just museum pieces, but living works which we can buy in bookshops, borrow from the library, or download from the internet and read today, right now.