Does Teaching Literature Still Matter?

I ask myself this question twice every year while preparing to return to the classroom for a new semester. I love prepping. I love choosing my books, thinking up activities, strategizing ways to help students work their way into a book and its issues, to appreciate the book’s use of language. In the past few years, however, I have had to fight a gnawing sense of futility. What could it possibly matter that my students, who range in age between 17 and 19, appreciate the beauty of E.B. White’s imagery in Charlotte’s Web, or grasp the richness of Ellen Foster’s voice, or appreciate the deeper themes about independence and rebellion in Where the Wild Things Are? My course is Creative Writing for Children. Students will eventually write their own picture books, plus the first chapter of a young adult novel.
Yesterday, a Ukrainian airplane was shot down over Tehran, killing 176 people, including 63 Canadian citizens. The majority of passengers were expected to take a connecting flight out of Kiev and continue on to Canada. A sadness and seething anger has settled amongst all Canadians at this senseless loss of so many lives, fueled by the awareness that one man is responsible: Donald Trump. And yet, to watch him at his news conference, cracking stupid jokes and blowing his own horn, it is clear he takes no responsibility and has not once ounce of remorse or empathy for any of the victims and their families. And we can do nothing about it. The fate of so much is truly in the hands of an idiot.
So, what is the use of literature and writing and words amongst all this insanity? Australia is burning, anti-Semitism and fascism are on the rise. Wealthy men like Epstein rape children and then are denied their day in court by conspiracies to keep them silent. Yes, the world is in a dark place, indeed.
And there, the lightbulb switches on. We need hope. We need optimism. We need beauty to counteract all the ugliness. And what better place to begin to find hope than in children’s books. The world has needed hope before and we have been in darker places than right now. Literature, the mirror of a culture, the shaper of culture, the conscience of a culture, has its role to play – perhaps not as central as the role once was, but there nonetheless.
I am going to return to class trying to be enthusiastic and optimistic. The young adults I teach deserve this. They have so many decades ahead of them, so many life experiences still to come. If the sight of Wilbur taking delight in Charlotte’s babies doesn’t help lift their spirits (yes, depression and anxiety seem to be epidemic) then I will have failed. But I know it will. It does me, every time I reread it. I can’t wait to get to that scene again.

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