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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

World Immersion: Thinking of Literature in Terms of Life

So I was flipping through the new course book for the spring semester and I was looking at the selection of English courses, because English is my major, and I have to say I’m a little disappointed.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the English department here at UMB. I have been at this university going on four years now; I have taken several stimulating courses and have been taught by several excellent English professors. I am not disappointed in my experience with the department; I just think there are a few things that could be done to make the program even better. I understand the constraints placed upon the creation of a new program due to lack of funding and staff. So this is not meant as a criticism of the UMB English Department, but rather as a suggestion of the kind of program I would like to see if the administration, and education policy makers in general, respected literature, and language in a larger sense, as much as they should.

Language, as humanity’s fundamental mode of communication, is a tool for social change. Literature is the most effective use of that tool, for it concentrates the communicative power of language and transmits that power to everyone who comes in contact with it in a way that is both direct and universal. It, too, is a tool for social change.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this for several reasons. Last Tuesday, Question Two was passed, effectively ending bilingual education in Massachusetts. The passing of this act not only suggests to me a deliberate disrespect for people who speak languages other than English, it also denies the value of other cultures, because language, as much as we may not realize it, is culture. This act enforces a cultural hegemony that is counterproductive to social improvement because it denies the universality and free and exchange of language and culture that is essential to progress on the social level.

I see this same attitude at work in the way our educational system approaches the teaching of literature, where the focus on the literary products of one language, English, dominates and denies the fact that literature is a worldwide experience. We come to see literature as pertaining to only one culture, existing in a vacuum, which I think is the way a lot of us view our language in general. Our ignorance of world cultures fosters a false sense of superiority, as well as denying the value we could gain from the experiences and ideas of other cultures. This is detrimental to what I feel is the primary value of any literature: the promotion of social change. We cannot understand the text without understanding its context, and we must realize that this context is the world, not just our little part of it.

As a culture we disrespect the social value of literature and language and I think a revised literature program, one that took the world in its view, would help reaffirm this value, and get us involved in promoting it and in promoting social change.

Several points seem important to the creation of such a program.

1. Literature is not isolated from other human modes of understanding the world: other artistic mediums like music and painting, as well as history, philosophy, politics, technology and science (the list goes on) all bear upon the meaning of literature. These disciplines need to be incorporated into the study of literature. Every book carries with it a trace of the cultural ideas that surrounded its creation, and every great book has had some impact on the culture (or cultures) in which it appeared. To take one obvious example: the world would be a very different place if the Bible had never been written, and likewise the Bible itself would be a very different book if world history had developed differently. The world inside the covers of a book is intimately related to the world outside where the reader sits holding the book. Let’s put the text back into context.

Approaching literature through alternative modes of thought can also provide new insights into the understanding of literature. For example, last semester I took a class on literary theory and criticism. This was a Philosophy course; nonetheless, this class helped me understand ways of looking at literature and ways of understanding and interpreting its importance more than any English course I have taken. Such a course, in perhaps a less rigorously academic version, would be of great value to students in the early years of literary study.

2. Literature is not isolated from our experiences in the real world. It affects the way we live, and the way we live in turn affects the development and meaning of literature. Let’s put the thoughts and feelings of characters aside every now and then and discuss how the books we read influence our thoughts and feelings. While we bring the meaning of the text into our world, into our lives, let us also bring our world and our lives into the meaning of the text. Let’s not be afraid of placing Pop Culture and Literature side by side. Movies, TV, Coca-Cola, fast food-these are cultural artifacts as influential as the works of Henry James. They influence our lives and likewise they influence the way we look at our literature. Let’s bring them into the discourse.

Also, let’s introduce more creative assignments into the classroom: one of the best ways to learn how literature works is to practice it. I personally think that the Creative Writing program should be expanded into a Major (or at least a minor), but regardless,I think it is important to incorporate creativity into academic study. Constant analysis of character and plot tends to distance us from the real energy of literature and to obscure the relationship between author and reader. Literature should always be exciting and relevant, because that is its true nature.

3. Literature is not isolated from literature. Certainly, one can make the argument that the English program is just that, a program in the literature of the English language. It is not meant to be more than that. Okay, fine. So let’s talk English literature: Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker, George Saunders. Why aren’t any of these names on the list for Six American Authors? Many students have probably not even heard of these authors, yet these are writers who offer new ways of seeing the world we live in, writers that students are more likely to be able to relate to than the dead men of one or two centuries ago.

And what of the rest of the world? I’m not suggesting that we do away with the English program as it stands, or that we force it to be something it is not meant to be. Rather, I am suggesting the development of perhaps an entirely new program of literary study, one that includes the study of English literature but expands its reach globally to place English literature in the context of world literature. Literature is not isolated to one culture. The works of Dostoyevsky have as much to reveal about the nature of human existence as those of Shakespeare. The literatures of diverse cultures affect each other in ways that, in the current framework, we little understand or appreciate. If we could create a program of study that exposed students to international literature, and helped them develop an understanding of the ways in which literatures interrelate globally, then we may also help them to understand how cultures interrelate globally, and to appreciate world cultures, as well as understanding their own culture more fully. To understand literature as a world event is an important step towards understanding the events of the world.

So all these ideas were swimming around in my head when I opened the spring semester course catalogue to look at the English Department’s offerings. I liked some of what I saw, but I’ve seen most of it before, and I think the time has come for something new. I believe, in fact, that it is necessary. UMB has always been progressive as a university that embraces the value of world cultures through the encouragement of a diverse student body. We should consider extending that embrace to the literature of these, and all, cultures. We should consider a program of literary study that promotes the purpose of social change through the art of language. The English Department here has already shown itself admirably to be supportive of the literature of writers who write outside the traditional canon: African-Americans, Women, Gay and Lesbian authors, working class authors. The program has a lot to offer; with a renewed direction and commitment to the respect and understanding of world cultures, and to relating literature to the lives of its students, it could offer so much more.