Being a substitute teacher is difficult enough: Sit down. Stop talking. Get to work. Stop talking. Now it’s also: Turn off the cell phone. Put away the iPod.
Having filled in for a senior English teacher at the local high school over the past eight months, I am not surprised that, overall, language skills are suffering. There is a certain amount of self-centredness expected of teenagers, but what worries me is the kind of ignorance that is emerging (one male student replied, “But it’s my dad,” when I told him not to answer his cell phone in the middle of first period). In the 20 years since I was a high school student, technology has transformed the education of adolescents, and not necessarily for the better. Even computers, billed as a “must-have” for every student, seem to encourage plagiarism rather than independent thought and creativity. This could be responsible in part for the one question I hear most frequently: “Why do we need to know this?”
How do I convince these students that the study of literature is worthwhile? That their lives will be enhanced by it? I tell them the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales share characteristics with people we know today; Shakespeare understood teenage relationships better than any parent; and anyone can write poetry since there are no rules. I tell them that knowing these stories and these characters will help them make sense of the world in which they live and will help them understand human nature. I tell them knowledge, even the kind from short stories and poems, breaks down the limitations imposed by ignorance.
I was quite excited about a Garden of Eden motif in a movie we’d just watched. The male and female leads had escaped from their artificial world and returned to a long-abandoned Earth. It was, like, so obvious.
“I don’t believe in that,” Brittany said.
“You don’t have to believe in it,” I replied. “It’s a literary allusion.”
“But I don’t believe in that. I don’t know anything about it.”
I realized she didn’t want to learn anything about it. End of the discussion. Later, while thinking about this lost teaching moment, it occurred to me that the study of literature is the same as our study of faith. As teenagers, many of us whined, “Why do I have to go to church?” We asked why we needed to study the Bible. How can the life of a man who lived 2,000 years ago in another country of another religion have anything to do with my life now? Like any student faced with T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a churchgoer asks, “How is this relevant to my life now?”
If you have ever been betrayed by a friend, you will relate to Shakespeare’s plays and to the story of Jesus’ final days. We study literature and read the Bible because their plots and settings, themes and ideas enrich our lives. By broadening our knowledge — reading Beowulf and Animal Farm, reading Harpur and Hitchens, Lewis and Lamott — we receive information that helps us figure out not just what we believe, but why. American novelist Chris Adrian says that he writes “mostly to try to make sense of my own petty and profound misery, and I fail every time, but every time I come away with a peculiar sort of contentment, as if it was just the trying that mattered.”
Now substitute “he writes” with “I believe.” And so this is my answer to that frequently asked question: “Why not?”
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