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Flannery O’Connor On Teaching Literature

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Editor’s note: This post was originally posted in 2012.

As an English teacher I am daily faced with the question of how best to bring alive whatever work my classes are reading.

Right now, my tenth graders are reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories so richly woven and beautifully crafted that one could argue that no greater collection of stories has ever been written. Yet my student’s stare blankly, drawing from them only that which is most obvious: the moral of each tale and, if I’m lucky, the basic plot points. They don’t see the richness or the beauty. And so I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids want the first option. My students don’t want to have to observe because observation demands patience and attention and time. Dissection, on the other hand, requires only a scalpel and something to clean up the mess later on. My students want to be told what to look for, they want to be told what they’re seeing, just as they are told what to look for and what they’re seeing when they dissect a frog or a chicken’s egg or a cow’s eyeball. They want to be given names and, for all their disdain of the requisite memory work, they want those names to be in a language they barely understand. They want these things for the same reason we as teachers tend to want these things: it provides a quantifiable sense of accomplishment. They want a list of things to memorize and identify because lists can be assessed and checked off and completed. And when they approach literature they want lists and names and literary devices to memorize and check off. They want to know, as we all do, that they are accomplishing something.

But literature isn’t science and I don’t believe it should be treated like it is. Literature is best learned through experience and experience is driven by observation and observation doesn’t cater to this instinct, this desire. To break literature down into its parts is to diminish its whole; it’s to demean its “whole-ness” and to extricate its Dianoia, its Logos, that fundamental mystery, or meaning, which makes it what it is. The meaning of a work of literature and its parts cannot be separated if that work is to be fully and completely understood. For to examine only the parts of a thing is to examine only what that thing has, not what it is. If I want to know what a frog is I should go to the pond and watch it do, and be, and inhabit. If I want to know what a frog has I should dissect it.

The same is true of literature. Yet, despite my own conviction that the best way to teach literature is via observation I have been wondering how best to approach a work in way that doesn’t diminish or disrespect the instinct and desire within my students to dissect (even if that instinct has been cultivated by me and their other teachers).

Then yesterday I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful essay, “The Teaching of Literature”, from her masterpiece collection of essays, Mystery and Manners. In it, Miss O’Connor makes a number of key points that should drive how we think about literature instruction. I heartily recommend you read the entire essay, but here are some of the passages I highlighted in yellow and blue:

“…Of all the various kinds of artists, the fiction writer is most deviled by the public…the fiction writer writes about life, and so anyone living considers himself an authority on it.”

“I find that everybody approaches the novel according to his particular interest…and if they find what they want, or at least what they can recognize, then they judge the piece of fiction to be superior.”

“The teacher of English is a sort of middle-man, and I have occasionally come to think about what really happens when a piece of fiction is set before students. I suppose this is a terrifying experience for the teacher.”

“I believe it’s perfectly possible to run a course of academic degrees in English and to emerge a seemingly respectable Ph.D. and still not know how to read fiction…people don’t know what they expected to do with a novel, believe, as many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something. Their eyes have not opened to what fiction is, and they are like the blind men who went to visit the elephant – each feels a different part and comes away with a different impression.”

“It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind…The mystery… is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manner are those convention which…reveal that central mystery.”

“The fiction writer is concerned with mystery that is lived. He’s concerned with ultimate mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience.”

“When I went to school I observed a number of ways in which the industrious teacher of English could ignore the nature of literature, but continue to teach the subject…the most of these was simply to teach literary history instead…another popular way to be concerned…with the author and his psychology…Actually, a work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who it or why….I found that there were times when all these methods became exhausted…and what had to be done then was simply to kill the subject altogether.”

“The result of the proper study of a novel should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it, but this is a contemplation of the mystery in the whole work and not or some proposition or paraphrase. It is not the tracking down of an expressible moral or a statement about life”.

I think that what Miss O’Connor was getting at here is that when we dissect literature we do so to find something recognizable. In legs and eyes and organs we see the familiar. But in the swamp we see only mystery, the unknown, and for most of us, the unknowable. So as an English teacher my job is to guide the observation of my students towards that which they know, that which they can recognize. My job is to help them observe, in the work’s inherent mystery, the knowable. For the logos of the work is built upon a foundation of the knowable, a foundation of that which is lived and experienced. Such observation can only be done through a contemplation of truth embodied and that means that it can only be done with fear and trembling. And if I can help my students see the truth embodied then they might also come to see the beauty and richness of the Great Books they are reading and maybe then they will discover a greater sense of accomplishment than could ever have come by memorizing a list of literary devices and terms.

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