Literature matters

  • Why we need more, not less, literature in schools
Something that stands out in most interactions one has with people these days is how little they have been exposed to good literature. In discussions with somebody like this, one is often tempted to remark, ‘I wish you were a little more conversant with literature.’ In an age when most everybody is a few finger-strokes away from publishing his opinions, this has started to happen way too frequently.
Bertrand Russell famously described (as far back as 1930) how his American hosts (some university students) took him for a walk through a wood near their campus. Though it was filled with exquisite wild flowers, not one of the guides knew the name of even one of them.  What use would such knowledge be? It couldn’t add to anybody’s income! When pecuniary value is all that matters, knowledge of trees and flowers becomes the first casualty. Followed very soon by appreciation of and familiarity with good literature. It was a matter of time before the science and commerce subjects came to be considered superior, while the arts and letters inferior and often outright dispensable.
There have been other factors too at play against good literature. For instance, ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’, a fixture in the secondary-school curriculum, has long been under attack for not being fit for the English syllabus, on the ‘grounds’ that it doesn’t have a moral lesson or (according to others) that it’s alien to our ethos. This week Dr Murad Raas, the Punjab Minister for School Education, also chose to indicate on his official facebook page that as a part of a comprehensive reforms package, things like Mr Chips would soon be replaced by articles on Iqbaliat, religion, and national heroes. While one wishes more power to Dr Raas in his mission for educational reform, one hopes he reconsiders this part. My intent here is not to defend Mr Chips per se (although I happen to love the novel), for there are many other equally good works. Neither is this meant as an objection to articles on Iqbaliat or other national heroes. What’s disturbing is the cited ‘rationale’ behind the removal.
One of the invaluable things that a training in literature teaches one is to appreciate a different time, space, and culture than one’s own without necessarily agreeing with part or all of it. After all, what could be more alien to our ethos than the works of Shakespeare or the King James Version for that matter? And yet, they contain the beauty of the English language unsurpassed elsewhere. A student of English literature would ignore them to his own detriment. This is not to say that he must extract life lessons out of them.
Another familiar charge against Mr Chips (again to take it as an example, for any good book can be similarly accused) is that it’s boring and uneventful. Here, I find myself compelled to quote Russell again: ‘All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches… A novel which sparks from the first page to the last is pretty sure not to be a great book.’ A certain power of enduring boredom is essential to a balanced and happy life; and is certainly worth being taught to the young. It’s not like we don’t already have a surplus of excitement in the form of court proceedings, pyjama cricket, talk-shows and video games.
A certain power of enduring boredom is essential to a balanced and happy life
When it comes to good literature then, at least three (inter-related) things can be pointed out: 1) It’s crucial for the development of a balanced personality; 2) It’s much more than any ideology contained in it; and 3) It almost never is an effortless reading from start to finish.  Lack of training to appreciate good literature has far reaching – and self-evident – results. No wonder that most people don’t possess the patience to even listen to a point of view different from their own. Even when they are pretending to be listening, what they are really doing is looking for the first reason to dismiss the whole thing.
One can hardly be completely sane without an appreciation of good literature and art in general. An ability to grapple with the discipline of assessing a work on its merits and on external sources, and only then venturing into opinion is an indispensable quality of a rational mind. The inculcation of this ability to appraise a work objectively (keeping one’s prejudices at bay) seems to have been forgotten by the students and the teachers alike. While Mr Chips and the like have to date failed to achieve this as far as most students are concerned; the deficiencies of teachers and students need to be addressed, rather than getting rid of the whole thing in favour of material that’s already being amply taught at all levels.
There can be little doubt that we need more, not fewer, sane people in the society. And since the realisation of a completely balanced personality is impossible without appreciation of good literature; our students – as well as the public at large – need to be exposed to more, not less, literature. As for those who are always looking for moral lessons everywhere, let the moral lesson here be that it’s not necessary that everything must have a moral lesson.