Literature with a Capital ‘L’

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Education, Literature

Of-Mice-and-Men-bookcover2       versus       Twilight-Book-Covers       

I try my best to make my students understand every single decision of mine throughout the term. I try and make them understand why tests are essential, the functionality of academic essays, and why we read what we read. More on this in a moment…

At every parent/teacher interview (my school calls them Learning Dialogues), at least half of the parents or guardians comment on my choice of literature – many of them will say (and I quote): “I remember reading this when was in high school.” Most of the time this is said with excitement and a hint of nostalgia, but sometimes it is said with undertones of displeasure, as if they are wondering why I couldn’t pick novels a little more contemporary. Here is why:

Like I said, I try and make my students understand why (and how) the novels on our course are carefully selected. On the first day of classes, I teach my students the difference between ‘literature with a capital L‘ and ‘literature with a lowercase l‘. Literature with a capital L are works of great literature – the classics. This type of literature has many levels that can be penetrated by varying levels of readers. Literature with a lowercase l are pieces meant only to entertain – newspapers, comics, autobiographies, and other pieces with surface-level information. This type requires minimal thinking and minimal effort on the part of the reader, which is often why we are drawn to them.

So, why don’t the novels change over the years? Simply because they are the classics! There is a reason (or many reasons) why they have stood the test of time and continue to be studied year-after-year. Trading off a classic for a more contemporary novel simply because it’s newer is not a good enough reason for me to make the switch.

For instance, the theme of my grade 10 course is: Seeking Justice in a Fallen World. Is there a more contemporary novel that will not only tackle the theme well, but also have the students think as deeply as, say, Lord of the Flies? Probably not. What about as deep as Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? Nope. So why change? Now, I am open to suggestions and always willing to try something new, so I am not entirely hung up on the classics, but I can make a strong case for the ones I’ve selected. I have yet to come across a newer novel that will hit the theme of the course, allow room for students to think deeply, and also keep the academic standards high. Until I can find other novels that hit the aforementioned areas, I will stick with the classics.

I want students to understand why they are forced to read these novels. I also want students to read a novel that they wouldn’t normally pick up in a Chapters Bookstore. There are bigger implications here – students are picking up books from the Twilight series, Hunger Games series (though there are some interesting themes present there), Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings series, and (dare I mention) the Fifty Shades of Grey series. To many students, they mistake these pieces for great literature and I would like to set them straight.

In my course, there is a drastic difference between literature with a capital and its counterpart and my students will understand and see the difference.

Great literature is timeless, significant, and requires great concentration and thought.

“Great literature will have three elements: an entertaining plot, a theme anyone can understand, and a deeper meaning that someone like you and I would study.” – Glen Hammond (my mentor and colleague)

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