The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - KEVIN DONNELLY On moral­ity in lit­er­a­ture

IS there a place for pop­u­lar cul­ture, rep­re­sented by films, text mes­sages, in­ter­net chat rooms and com­puter games, in the English class­room, along­side great lit­er­a­ture? Mark Howie, the vice- pres­i­dent of the Aus­tralian As­so­ci­a­tion for the Teach­ing of English, be­lieves there is.

At the Se­nate in­quiry into stan­dards in ed­u­ca­tion, Howie ar­gued that ‘‘ given the re­al­i­ties of the mod­ern world ( where) stu­dents are en­gaged with vis­ual and elec­tronic text ev­ery day’’, English teach­ers have to ‘‘ find ways in the cur­ricu­lum of bring­ing the two to­gether’’.

I beg to dif­fer: lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially the en­dur­ing clas­sics as­so­ci­ated with the West­ern tra­di­tion, must be given pre- em­i­nent sta­tus, but that does not mean I do not un­der­stand the ap­peal of pop cul­ture.

When I was grow­ing up in the 1960s, ev­ery boy in my street in the work­ing- class Melbourne sub­urb of Broad­mead­ows, in­clud­ing me, had a hoard of comic books rang­ing from the Phan­tom, Su­per­man and Spi­der- Man to Bat­man and Won­der Wo­man. By the time I reached high school, my taste in en­ter­tain­ment had de­vel­oped to in­clude James Bond, Mod­esty Blaise and television se­ries such as The Samu­rai and end­less episodes of Band­stand .

On Satur­day af­ter­noons I caught up with the heroic ex­ploits of larger- than- life west­ern he­roes such as the Cisco Kid and John Wayne and clas­sic films in­clud­ing Ben Hur , The 300 Spar­tans and Cleopa­tra .

The funny thing was, none of this found its way into the class­room. At Broady High, English with Mr Clay­ton and Mr Mackie in­volved Aus­tralian and English po­etry, Dick­ens, Law­son and Shake­speare, and learn­ing how to parse and pre­cis and to write prop­erly struc­tured es­says.

Thank­fully, I also found my way into a read­ing group or­gan­ised by the lo­cal Angli­can min­is­ter, who in­tro­duced us to books such as Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Free­dom and The Art of Lov­ing , Kon­rad Lorenz’s On Ag­gres­sion as well as Plato.

Rather than the tyranny of rel­e­vance, where ed­u­ca­tion re­lates to the world of the stu­dent, my teach­ers saw their role as chal­leng­ing us by pro­vid­ing an al­ter­na­tive to the of­ten ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and su­per­fi­cial cul­tures in which we lived.

The re­al­ity is that for many of us, grow­ing up in a hous­ing com­mis­sion es­tate sur­rounded by a waste­land of brick and ce­ment, of­ten with vi­o­lent, al­co­holic par­ents, the trans­for­ma­tive and heal­ing power of lit­er­a­ture pro­vided a gate­way into an imag­i­na­tive world with­out which life may have been in­tol­er­a­ble.

Lit­er­a­ture not only pro­vided an es­cape from the of­ten empty and repet­i­tive day- to- day rou­tine, it also in­tro­duced us to an un­known world of ideas, eth­i­cal dilem­mas and hu­man emo­tions in an in­sight­ful and com­pelling way.

That lit­er­a­ture, at its best, is far su­pe­rior to pop­u­lar cul­ture rep­re­sented by Neigh­bours , Big Brother , text mes­sages or the ego- driven, self­cen­tred drivel found on MyS­pace and Face­book should be self- ev­i­dent.

While the texts that con­sti­tute the lit­er­ary canon are re- eval­u­ated over time, the truth is that en­dur­ing works such as Euripi­des’ Medea , Shake­speare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s The Cherry Or­chard deal with emo­tions and predica­ments in a pro­foundly sen­si­tive way, un­like Neigh­bours or Jean- Claude Van Damme’s ac­tion movies.

As Bruno Bet­tel­heim and Joseph Camp­bell point out in dis­cussing the im­por­tance of myths, fa­bles and leg­ends, lit­er­a­ture deals with the types of he­roes and archetypes that are es­sen­tial for emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing and ma­tu­rity. Lit­er­a­ture is also spe­cial in the way lan­guage is em­ployed. Amer­i­can aca­demic Louise Rosen­blatt points to the unique qual­ity of lit­er­a­ture when she dif­fer­en­ti­ates be­tween what she terms an ef­fer­ent and an aes­thetic re­sponse.

The skills re­quired to read an Ikea man­ual are to­tally dif­fer­ent to those needed to read T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Al­fred Prufrock . The first is con­cerned with read­ing in its most lit­eral guise: to un­der­stand in­for­ma­tion as quickly and eas­ily as pos­si­ble. But read­ing that re­quires what Co­leridge termed a ‘‘ will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief’’ al­lows a reader to en­ter a world that has the power to shock and to awe, and which can speak to one’s in­ner self.

In To Kill a Mock­ing­bird , At­ti­cus Finch ex­plains to his daugh­ter the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing and sym­pa­this­ing with those around us by us­ing the metaphor of stand­ing in some­body’s shoes. Lit­er­a­ture, un­like texts in a more gen­eral sense, is unique in its abil­ity to en­gen­der the abil­ity to em­pathise with oth­ers. While the hu­man­is­ing qual­ity of lit­er­a­ture can­not be guar­an­teed, the re­al­ity is that in en­ter­ing into the life of char­ac­ters, feel­ing their joy and suf­fer­ing, and fol­low­ing their ex­ploits and tra­vails, one is made to lose one’s sense of self and to value the worth of oth­ers.

Lit­er­a­ture is es­sen­tially moral in fo­cus, un­like util­i­tar­ian texts pro­duced for com­mer­cial or en­ter­tain­ment rea­sons. It is wrong to sug­gest lit­er­a­ture pro­vides sim­plis­tic an­swers to com­plex eth­i­cal dilem­mas, but fa­bles such as The Iliad , chil­dren’s sto­ries in­clud­ing C. S. Lewis’s Nar­nia books and more re­cent works by Pa­trick White and David Malouf ad­dress is­sues re­lated to right and wrong and what con­sti­tutes a good life.

Con­tem­po­rary ap­proaches to English are driven by a mantra of change. Ar­gu­ments in favour of deal­ing with new tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing the in­ter­net and com­puter games, are couched in terms of look­ing to the fu­ture and ac­com­mo­dat­ing the de­mands of the in­for­ma­tion- driven 21st cen­tury.

What this ig­nores is Eliot’s point that con­ti­nu­ity is as im­por­tant as change. As such, the knowl­edge, un­der­stand­ing and wis­dom rep­re­sented by our lit­er­ary her­itage is es­sen­tial in giv­ing stu­dents an un­der­stand­ing of the present and the abil­ity to deal with the fu­ture.

Eliot ar­gues that the need is: ‘‘ To main­tain the con­ti­nu­ity of our cul­ture — and nei­ther con­ti­nu­ity, nor re­spect for the past, im­plies stand­ing still. More than ever, we look to ed­u­ca­tion to­day to pre­serve us from the er­ror of pure con­tem­po­rane­ity. We look to in­sti­tu­tions of ed­u­ca­tion to main­tain a knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of the past.’’

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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