Not an Option, Not a Frill: Literature at the Core of Learning

[An open letter to my fellow English teachers near and far.]

Thought flows in terms of stories – stories about events, stories about people, and stories about intentions and achievements. The best teachers are the best story tellers. We learn in the form of stories.

—Frank Smith, Canadian psycholinguist

Dear Colleagues,

As the IBO prepares to join the crowd swimming downstream and dilute its English A1 course by splitting it into two ‘options’, one for Language and the other for Literature*, the Wiser Voice in my head says to me, “It’s over. Just shut up.”

But of course I won’t.

Humans are the only animals that tell stories. The most important stories we tell delve into the most profound questions about our existence, the questions at the heart of life and learning: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing, and what should we be doing?

We do not, contrary to the inane compartmentalizations of The School, tell stories only in English class. Religious beliefs consist of a series of interconnected stories: how the world was created, who created it, for what purpose, why we suffer, how we should live, etc. History (another core subject that has been devalued by the utilitarians and dethroned in the curriculum by “social studies”) is collective storytelling. Scientific theories are, at their core, stories explaining how things work. Even mathematics is based on certain ‘stories’ that assume, for example, that space is three-dimensional and parallel lines don’t meet.

We think in metaphors, and metaphors are nothing but little stories, or the germs of stories, or comparisons rooted in a certain story about how things are. This, we say, is like that.

Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us.

(“Thinking Literally”

It is virtually impossible to think without using metaphors, and thus storytelling is at the very heart of how we understand the world and ourselves. Any curriculum that makes the study of history and literature into ‘options’ fails utterly to understand how human beings live, think, and learn. If students do not become adept readers of stories, how can they ever hope to critically analyze and respond to the stories that will be thrown at them all their lives by politicians, by governments, by marketers, not to mention friends, family members, and perfect strangers?

We should keep the study of stories at the heart of education, and we should keep the most important stories at the heart of our curriculum. As Goethe wrote,

Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.

How can one possibly give an account of the last 3,000 years without knowing history and literature? When I began teaching nearly thirty years ago, students in my high school whose skills were poor were shunted off into courses with titles like “Writers’ Workshop”. These students were not taught Shakespeare, because it they were thought to be incapable of understanding Shakespeare. I argued then that this was a terrible policy. One can teach Shakespeare in a variety of ways. His original audiences, after all, included large numbers of illiterates. To exclude students from the study of Shakespeare is to commit a kind of cultural apartheid. The bizarre twists and turns of American ‘culture wars’, in which the multiculturalists go to battle against the misogynistic, Eurocentric ‘canon’, should not be allowed to infect our thinking and distract us from our essential task. The culture that we have inherited from our ancestors belongs to all of us, and it is immoral, in my view, to say to a student, “You are not good enough to be part of our cultural inheritance.” It is tantamount to saying to them, “You are not good enough to be considered fully human.” It is our duty as teachers to educate children, and that does not mean simply teaching them to “decode” language and numbers. It means transmitting to them our common cultural inheritance. One cannot be considered an educated person otherwise.

This duty weighs even more heavily on secondary teachers than it used to, because colleges and universities have, with a few noble exceptions, largely abandoned any effort to provide a liberal education to their students. If a student doesn’t read Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens in high school, it is quite likely she never will.

I earnestly hope that whatever new dispensation arrives from whichever curricular source, we will hold firmly to the conviction that the study of storytelling is at the core of any good education and must not be marginalized. All students should study history and literature, every year, and any curricular options should be considered only as additions, not as substitutes, for those core subjects. In the upcoming revision to the IB Language A1 offerings, if we have a choice, we should choose not to offer the Language option. If we must offer it, we should vigorously advise students to choose Literature, not Language. And if, as I understand is the case with the new IB Language A course, we have a choice of including more literature or less**, we should include as much as possible.

Notes, Clarifications, Corrections

*The two options are actually (a) Literature, and (b) a course that is half Literature and half Language.

**I am now not sure this is the case.

7 thoughts on “Not an Option, Not a Frill: Literature at the Core of Learning”

  1. It’s good to read an account of our discipline that talks about its contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our world instead of its role in pulling our language (and sometimes our writers) to bits.

  2. For language A1, yes. Well said. Especially since so much of education is life lessons and the contemplation of things that matter more than the basic mechanics of a language.

  3. Although inspired by the upcoming changes to the IB English A1 course, I did not want this to be only about the IB. However, I have received a response from a friend of a friend about the IB course that is worth sharing (non-IB folk will probably want to walk away at this point):

    The syllabus review info I used for the last workshop states that the new option for Group 1 is Lang/Lit, ie. six texts at HL and 4 at SL will still be taught and examined (and from the same booklist as the [current] Lit only course). Two parts of the course will be Lang and two Lit-based. In essence it’s not unlike the A level Lang/Lit in syllabus format……..
    And it stands beside, and as an alternative to, the whole-Lit based course we know & love – not instead of it.
    So I think he’s probably wrong unless there has been a massive sea change in the working party brief since February.
    It’s an interesting article but if its premise is that the IB is “dumbing down” Languages Group 1 by offering a Language course from 2011 INSTEAD of Lit, and therefore the cultural stories are not going to be transmitted etc etc he’s just wrong – all candidates, whichever option they choose, will still have to do a lot of literature!! ……You would have to find a way to tell him to remove all inflammatory references to the changes in Groups 1 and 2 and find a new “hook” entirely to make his plea for “Literature at the Core of Learning”.

    Here is my reply:

    Before, if students wanted a Lang/Lit course, they chose A2. But A2 never became a popular option, so they have essentially re-visioned A2 and turned it into the A1 Lang/Lit option to be paired with the A1 Lit option.

    Many people besides myself foresee that students will perceive the Lang/Lit course as the easy option, and that enrolment in the Lit option will drop precipitously.[I do] perceive this as ‘dumbing down’ . . . . The AP program offers two English options, one Lang and the other Lit. I know from my own experience that the Lang option was widely regarded as the easier option, and was chosen by more students overall.

    Either way, the net effect is the marginalization of literature as a course of study.

    A better approach would have been to update the A1 HL course, and then rewrite the A1 SL course to make it less demanding in the number of books and less academic in its assessments—but still a 100% literature course. It’s not surprising that many students are not thrilled at the thought of writing commentaries, but the study of literature need not be narrowly academic. A SL course that provides a more humanistic, personalized approach to literature would be a welcome addition that would meet the needs of the students who formerly chose A2 or who are wishing for a less academic, less demanding alternative to A1 HL.

    I’ll just add one more comment: The current A1 HL course requires 15 works to be studied. That’s a lot more than six!

  4. Eric,

    What a thought-provoking post. I’ve heard quite a great deal of varied information regarding the upcoming changes to the programme. I am a bit apprehensive. Unfortunately, it does sound a bit like the introduction of an ITGS “word processing” option. I am particularly fond to the “Thinking Literally” quote and foresee it laminated on my classroom wall in the near future. Keep up the good work- people are learning here

    1. Hi Troy,

      I sincerely hope the new program is better than “an ITGS ‘word processing’ option”! ;^ )

      But I, too, am apprehensive. We shall soon see, eh?

      Thanks for the comment!


  5. Hi Troy:
    just why did you not raise hell in the first place back in the days of 2006 and all along the way until 12/15/09, when the working parties at Cardiff redesigned the A1/A2 Group 01 options? All this with the apparent backing of questionnaire responses from 1000 plus IB Schools????
    As for the university recognition of this venture:
    many universities in the German speaking parts of Europe require two A languages, that is, A1 / Group 01, for the mother tongue, best or native language requirement,-
    and A2 / Group 02, for the first foreign language requirement.
    Now that A Lit and A Lang & Lit are happily united in Group 01, and not Group 01 AND Group 02, studs are supposed doing what?
    Sacrifycing the Group 06 Option for another Group 01 subject,
    in order to cover all Group 01 to 06 IB requirements, as Language B / Group 02 does not meet the requirements for the ‘first foreign language’, which requires plus/minus seven years of instruction.
    Of course, the IB will work it out with the respective ministries of edu….
    Best regards!

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