Written by Guadalupe Rodriguez
Recently, I sat in class for one of my teaching courses which emphasized a desperate need for English teachers to teach tools to students that will help them in civic discourse. As a previous AP Language and Composition student, I got most of that covered—writing an argument, accepting or fighting back against one. Did your English teachers teach this in your high school English class? In this particular session, the professor made a point to say that although literature is good for the soul, helping students learn tools to use for civic discourse is more important.
I agree that it is crucially necessary for English teachers to give students the tools that will make them, as future voters and citizens of the world, better at engaging with that world. For example, I benefited so much from my AP Language and Composition course; it made me a better writer, a critical reader, and most importantly, a critical thinker. No longer do I just accept whatever is thrown at me as an sufficient argument. Questioning the validity of evidence and thinking for oneself about the cases that are being presented is incredibly important.
With that being said, I don’t think that literature needs to be excluded from curriculum. I think if anything, literature helps elaborate feelings and emotions that sometimes arguments cannot articulate. Literature makes people more empathetic; it humanizes the complexity of human behavior—and who’s to say that we can’t use literature to help strengthen our beliefs about a certain topic, or challenge one that we have?
You can do it with anything! Technology and government: 1984 by George Orwell; Racial discrimination in the south: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward; environmental racism: So Far from God by Ana Castillo; mental health and society: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; Native American lifestyle and issues in America: Ceremony by Leslie Silko.
Literature provides a great way to analyze the beliefs of certain groups of people. For example, the books mentioned above can serve as a picture or judgment of society at a particular time, with respect to a particular topic. Literature is good for the soul, yes, but appreciating the beauty of literature can also be helpful in learning to be a better reader, writer, and thinker. Although I do agree that there should be a huge shift of focus into argumentative writing and civic engagement, I do not think that this shift requires a mutually exclusive relationship between literature and civic engagement.