“Hey, what about us?”
Two weeks ago the Modern Language Association and Teagle Foundation issued a white paper that lays out a set of guidelines and principles for literature and language curricula. It’s a remarkable document, and everyone involved in curricular projects in secondary and higher education should read it. (Go here and scroll to the bottom for the pdf.)
Anybody who has sat through meetings focused on English language arts and foreign language curricula at the high-school level, or on English at the higher-education level, knows that one of the sticky questions is where to place literature, particularly Great Books, in the program. Cultural studies folks don’t like the rarefied and abstract nature of literary culture. Identitarian minds don’t like the fact that the pre-1900 corpus is so heavily white male. Media types like TV shows more than books so they highlight media literacy as a 21st-century skill.
Against them all, the MLA report takes an unambiguous stand. “We firmly believe,” it declares in a section entitled “The Major’s Foundation,” “that language and literature need to remain at the center of what departments of English and languages other than English do.”
In the next paragraph: “The role of literature needs to be emphasized.”
Yes, it says elsewhere that students need other literacies — technological, cross-cultural, technological, and informational — but the literary text comes first. “While we advocate incorporating into the major the study of a variety of texts,” it assures, “we insist that the most beneficial among these are literary works.”
The report gives an appreciatory nod to digital media, whose rise “has ushered in new paths to the pursuit and attainment of knowledge.” But it also notes “multiple pressures” due in part to digital technology: “to speed up instruction, expand coverage, investigate new interests, use the resources provided by developing media, and meet benchmarks of achievement.”
Rather than go with the flow, however, literature and language departments should stand firmly against it. The report advises: “Departments should resist the impulse to increase coverage at the expense of intense engagement with great and complex works of literature.”
These are determined assertions, and I presume that they stem from the realization that unless literature is defended, literary study will shrink with each media expansion. Long novels and complex poetry cannot compete on their own, not in a Web 2.0 universe. English and foreign-language professors are the guardians of them, and the MLA report is an inspiring example of that duty.
(Photo by Flickr user Fczuardi)