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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: December ::
Re: The Value of Literature
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1345  Thursday, 31 December 1998.

[1]     From:   Marilyn Bonomi <
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        Date:   Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 14:45:52 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of Shakespeare/Literature

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 13:30:20 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of Shakespeare/Literature

[3]     From:   Louis Swilley <
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        Date:   Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 21:41:11 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of Shakespeare/Literature


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Marilyn Bonomi <
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Date:           Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 14:45:52 -0500
Subject: 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of
Shakespeare/Literature

Jason Mical wrote

>Just out of curiosity, how have others dealt with this issue?  It
>troubles me greatly that so many others write off literature as
>worthless so readily.  One of the reasons I decided on English as a
>major was that I thought I could reach people with literature and
>writing, but I've gotten a lot of resistance to this idea.  Am I just
>being an idealistic undergraduate or what?

The trend in K-12 pedagogy in the US, at least, is toward the reader
response approach to literature and literacy as well.

In CT, for instance, where I'm in my 33rd year as a teacher of English,
humanities but ESPECIALLY of students (!!), we have a series of mastery
tests given statewide.  The 10th grade test (CT Academic Proficiency
Test, or CAPT), which which I am intimately familiar b/c I teach
sophomores and so have to be sure that they understand the way the test
works (NOT the same as "teaching to the test" BTW), works this way:

The students have 1 1/2 hrs.  They receive (note to the syntax thread
folk: notice how I'm using a generic plural to avoid the his/her/their
issue!) a short story of literary merit to read and mark up as they wish
and a series of 6 questions.  Several of those 6 do not change from year
to year: "What is your first reaction to the story?" (which requires a
well-structured answer, BTW, not a rambling reminiscence, a flaw which
troubles me personally); "What is good literature?  Is this story good
literature?" (Classrooms across the state, regardless of what subjects
are taught in them, now have charts w/ the definition-since anything
that hangs in the room all year may be left up during the CAPT test.)
and "How does this story connect to real life, movies, TV, etc.?"  All
three of the preceding are paraphrases, incidentally.

The test requires that in all six questions, students who achieve
mastery make connections from the text to their own lives and then back
to the text, citing specific details from the text and elaborating on
them.  Often there are questions about conflict, or the significance of
the title, of a series of 3 quotations from which the student makes a
choice and then discusses.

Whatever ethical content a story may contain probably will come out in a
competent student's discussion.  But the focus is on what the student
learns from the literature rather than on what the author "teaches."

And that's how I run my classroom.  When I do R&J w/ sophomores, or
Othello w/ the senior Humanities course (essentially history of Western
culture), I don't TELL them what Shakespeare teaches them, nor do I tell
them to find what Shakespeare teaches.  (Right-"boys and girls, here's
this play that will teach all of you the ethics of how children should
respond to the directives of their elders."  Anyone interested in
contributing to my defense of termination fund?)  Instead, I ask them to
react to the text and tell me what they've gathered for themselves as
they read: what  meanings they are able to make from the text.  AND THEN
I MAKE THEM POINT TO THE TEXT AND SHOW ME ON WHAT BASIS THEY MAKE THAT
MEANING.  W/o this last step, they're not making meaning from the text,
they're simply philosophizing out of their own lives.

Hope this helps answer your question, Jason!  And good luck in your
chosen career path... I've never regretted for an instant having chosen
it for myself.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 13:30:20 -0800
Subject: 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of
Shakespeare/Literature

Jason queries:

> Just out of curiosity, how have others dealt with this issue?  It
> troubles me greatly that so many others write off literature as
> worthless so readily.  One of the reasons I decided on English as a
> major was that I thought I could reach people with literature and
> writing, but I've gotten a lot of resistance to this idea.

What troubles me is the number of people within English departments who
resist such ideas, but lack the good faith to resign.

Personally, I see literature as placing us within ethical space, as it
were.  We are confronted, in reading or watching a play, by systems of
value that are not ours, or simply by people who are not us.  And ethics
always takes place in the face of the Other.  There is no then no
'ethical lesson' that we learn from the play as a sort of parable, but
the experience of watching or reading is itself an ethical activity, in
which we expose ourselves to alterity, in which we not only see others
making ethical choices, but must make such choices ourselves, and be the
subject of such choices in the more metadramatic moments.

Cheers,
Sean.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis Swilley <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Sunday, 27 Dec 1998 21:41:11 -0600
Subject: 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1335 Re: Titus and the Value of
Shakespeare/Literature

>Just out of curiosity, how have others dealt with this issue?  It
>troubles me greatly that so many others write off literature as
>worthless so readily.  One of the reasons I decided on English as a
>major was that I thought I could reach people with literature and
>writing, but I've gotten a lot of resistance to this idea.  Am I just
>being an idealistic undergraduate or what?

Teaching people to appreciate the art of literature is not essentially
different from teaching them to appreciate the art of music, the plastic
arts, film, etc.  These are subjects that liberate the mind, urging it
to consider eternal values and define itself and its end.  They are
deeply valuable, but in no way practical, for they can be used for
nothing beyond the understanding they invite.   If we build anything
through the study of them, it is our deepest selves.   All art is for
everyone in that way, but as it produces nothing material, it has a poor
reputation among most, who are blind to anything that produces no
material gain.

      [L. Swilley]

>THE TEMPEST teaches us it is ok to punish your enemies and drive them to
>madness, as long as you apologize in the end.  It also advocates
>slavery.

This is a curiously narrow reading of a wise play.  The attitudes of
Prospero, as they develop in the play, do not entertain his actions as
"punishment of enemies" but as moral correctives and as a very gentle
justice indeed.   He is, after all, the Duke, with the absolute power of
that office.  He finally uses that power well and generously.  His
treatment of Ariel and of Caliban - and of Ferdinand - is appropriate to
their circumstances and applied for their benefit; if it is slavery, it
is the kindest, most fatherly "slavery" ever imagined.

>HAMLET advocates murder as a way of solving a legal dispute or family
>troubles, because the main character's "sin" is not that he kills
>Claudius, but that he waits to do so.

The play is more complicated than that.   In the first place, Hamlet's
waiting is not just hesitancy, it is wisdom, for if Claudius is killed
privately, the public order will be thrown into chaos - hardly, then,
the responsible action of a prince.  Even Claudius' actions at the play
within the play cannot be absolutely construed as public signs of guilt,
without which public signs (finally delivered at the end of the play),
the killing would be suspect, disruptive.   Certainly Hamlet sins in his
extraordinary motives for resisting the murder of the praying Claudius -
but that is another matter.  Hamlet's problem is that he must make the
King's acts known to a judging public - without that, the task assigned
him by the ghost will not be accomplished, nor, peripherally, will
revenge be achieved.
        [L. Swilley]
 

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