Using Literature in Education

Using Literature in Education

Janani Ramanathan
Research Associate, The Mother’s Service Society
Associate Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science

Education is an amazing organization that we have developed. We have taken all that we have discovered, invented, created and learnt over the last 200,000 years of our existence as a species and organized it into a fifteen-twenty year study program that we offer to all our youngsters through school and college. As we learn more, we weed out superstitions, correct mistakes and update this body of knowledge constantly. This way, we ensure that every generation is equipped with all the knowledge available so it can start off from where the previous generation left.

Creating such an organization is possible by dividing all human knowledge into small portions. We categorize all that we know into different branches, each composed of a group of related subjects. Each broad subject is further divided into specializations. Within these, we group individual pieces of information into lessons, topics and subtopics, till we have broken up knowledge into small, easy to handle bits.

In the process, knowledge gets fragmented. Lessons in our textbooks often focus on each bit of information in isolation, separated from the rest of knowledge. This leads children to lose sight of the whole. It is similar to taking a flower, separating it into its many petals, and studying each from very close. The students may learn thoroughly the shape, size, colour, and texture of the individual petal, but they will not know the flower. The beauty of the symmetry or asymmetry of all its petals held together at the centre, the contrast in colours, and the fragrance of the flower are completely lost when a single petal is placed under a microscope and studied. This is what we do in our textbooks. Be it a lesson on organic chemistry, Renaissance or the solar system, each tends to look at the topic in isolation, disconnected from the rest of science or the humanities. The individual science lesson does not show the relation between organic chemistry and the fossil fuel industry is not shown. Why the Renaissance followed the Middle Ages, and was succeeded by the Age of Exploration is not explained. The paradigm shift from the geocentric theory of the universe to the heliocentric theory that laid the foundation of our understanding of the solar system, and the mental courage required of Copernicus and Galileo to propound such a theory are not considered essential when teaching the solar system. This leaves a lot of the knowledge that students gain devoid of a context. It is no wonder that students wonder why they are learning a certain subject or topic. What is the purpose? Why should I learn this? How will this be of any use in life? What does this have to do with the real world - these are the various expressions of the disconnect that students experience from their lessons as a result of the fragmentation of knowledge and the lack of contextual education.

We possess knowledge that we have collected over millennia of living and learning. Imagine the early humans who first discovered the connection between the seed and the tree. They used the products of the tree –its flowers, fruits, bark and wood. But to discover that every plant and tree grows from a seed must have taken years of observation and deduction. If upon throwing away a fruit or a part of it, they found a plant germinating in the very place, they could not have figured out the science behind it. But seeing the same occurrence repeatedly and getting confirmation of the phenomenon from others could have pointed to a possible link between the two over time. Centuries of experience with different seeds, soil types, weather and climatic conditions have given us the knowledge that we have today of botany. It is life experience of countless people in different parts of the world over the ages that we offer in our primary school textbooks as the life cycle of plants. Similarly, every lesson in our school and college books contains the essence of what we have learnt from centuries of trial and error, failure and discovery. We extract the essence of our learning over time, leaving out most of the details. It is not possible to do otherwise.

But in the process of abridging knowledge to extract the essence, we condense knowledge to such a level of abstraction that all life is taken out of the life experience. Take for example the Indian freedom struggle. It consists of tens of thousands of powerful human narratives that unfolded over two centuries. The Rani of Jhansi fighting with her infant tied to her, the crushing of the Sepoy Mutiny, the hanging of Bhagat Singh, a matching story  in every Indian village and town, the march to Dandi, the sheer brilliance of harnessing the symbolic power of salt and the spinning wheel to implement the Civil Disobedience and Boycott movements, the outrage at Jallianwalah Bagh, the sacrifice of leaders as well as common men and women alike all over the country – together comprised the Indian freedom struggle. But when all that a history teacher gets to teach this is one lesson, to be completed in three 40-minute classes, then there is time only for some names, incidents and dates. It is not surprising that students find lessons boring, difficult to relate to, and memorizing the facts becomes a chore. The human context, the psychological and emotional aspects and the subjective side of reality are clinically removed, leaving students with just sterilized facts and abstract principles.

The organization of knowledge into the education that our institutions provide has caused two types of gaps: a horizontal disconnect between various parts of knowledge, and a vertical divide between the learner and the lesson. However, these gaps can be bridged using literature.

Stories have always served a dual purpose: entertainment and education. All our myths, fairy tales and folklore have a message in them. Intuitive teachers have always used stories, and even popular movies and television series to illustrate and explain their lessons. This process can however be adopted in a wider and more systematic way as explained in the following example, to make education live and contextual.

Jules Verne’s book ‘Around the World in 80 days’ is a comic adventure of the English gentleman, Phileas Fogg as he travels around the world in order to win a wager. This book, if taught in school, is primarily used to teach the English language. Instead, as Fogg travels from England through Europe to Egypt, India and further East, children can be taught Geography as well. A typical Geography lesson teaches a country’s geography by giving its capital, area, population, languages spoken, crops grown. It describes the climate, lists the rivers and mountains there, and any natural resources that are available in the region. This looks at the country and its geography in isolation, separated from the rest of knowledge and life. Instead, if the geography of each of the regions Fogg travels through is described, it sets the knowledge in a context and grabs the students’ interest.

Similarly, many subjects can be touched upon through the story. In his travel, Fogg encounters people of different religions, cultures and customs. Students can be exposed to these differences, an education much needed in today’s globalized yet polarized world.

A detective follows Fogg around the world with an arrest warrant. We are told that the warrant is valid in Egypt and India, but not in Japan or the US, the story being set in the late 19th century. History, colonies, colonization and international law can be introduced to students from the setting in the story.

Fogg uses various modes of travel – train, steamer, boat, even an elephant and an improvised snow mobile. Classroom discussion can branch into the characteristics of each of these modes of transportation. A comparison with the options available today, and the fact that we have reduced the travel time to go around the world by 79 days show students how much we have advanced in the last 200 years. The factors behind this advancement – industrialization, growth of science and technology, supported by the rising aspiration of people – can offer a lesson on the theory of social development.

Perhaps the most important learning of all that we can get from the story is related to the high positive values in Fogg – values such as punctuality, generosity, selflessness, chivalry, perfection – that determine the success of his endeavour. The story shows time and again how his every value directly leads to a positive result – Fogg decides to rescue his servant from the Sioux Indians, later it is the servant who finds out that Fogg still has time to win the wager; he risks his life to save the Indian princess, she marries him and adds life to his existence; he is always punctual and life almost subjugates itself to his sense of time and lets him accomplish the near impossible feat of going around the world in the stipulated time. The secret of success in life, the ultimate knowledge every individual needs to live and accomplish, is given in the story.

It is not just in Around the World, but every good work of literature has this knowledge in it. Every great writer is a seer of life, and his or her writing is but a reflection of life. Consciously or unconsciously, writers capture the life around them in their writings, thereby encapsulating the laws of life, the principles of accomplishment and the way life responds to our every act, word, thought and attitude – which we can call Life Response – in their writing. Providing students with this knowledge through stories is one of the most effective ways of teaching them these great truths of life.

Literature needs to play a much more significant role in our education. Instead of using it to teach just the language, it can be used to make learning transdisciplinary, and give students a view of the whole. We can relate the story to the student. Every subject can taught within a context and the inter links between the various subjects shown. Using literature, we use also give children the ultimate education: develop their personality, inculcate the right values and teach them to accomplish in life.