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Do “Lit and Comp” Belong Together?

To all parents and teachers who have ever attempted a lesson in literature and composition: Does the following teaching strategy sound familiar to you?

A teacher assigns a work of literature, say The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. After the students have read the novel, he takes the opportunity afforded by a particular scene or character to execute a series of lessons on a relevant moral, ethical, or philosophical issue. Let’s say the scene is Hester Prynne’s refusal to name her lover, and the relevant issue is adultery, or individualism, or repression in the face of a legalistic society.

To get the lesson going, the teacher assigns a series of exercises on writing and thinking about these issues (adultery, individualism, or repression). He aims these exercises at two explicit goals:

  1. The inculcation of techniques for writing and thinking about ideas.
  2. The enforcing of sanctioned opinions about adultery, individualism or repression.

The students complete the exercises and acquire the skills intended, which include increased facility with thinking and writing about ideas as well as the growth of correct and well-formed opinions about adultery, individualism, and repression. It is a very successful process. The teacher leads the students in profound conversations about these issues along the way, and their skill at expressing their opinions on these topics increases dramatically.

The teacher is gratified at the success of all his efforts. He therefore concludes that, since this entire process was occasioned by a work of literature, it has therefore been a lesson in both literature and composition. He and his students agree that they have “done” The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and move smartly to the next item in the curriculum.

Listening well and understanding an author on his own terms is an absolute prerequisite to expressing one’s own opinions

Wait just a minute, however. There is a party to this conversation about adultery, individualism, and repression who has not been invited to participate, but without whose opinions it cannot be called literary. Of course, I am speaking of Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter. During this entire conversation, the point of which was to inculcate in the student techniques of writing and thinking about adultery, individualism, and repression, nobody has asked Hawthorne to weigh in.

Worse still, nobody has checked to see whether The Scarlet Letter is remotely concerned with these things. The exercises do not help the student discover whether Hawthorne was interested in adultery, individuality, or repression. While they may be very productive of other things, the exercises cannot be said to be literary in their aim or execution, because they exclude the author and his novel from the conversation. It is therefore not true that the lesson covers literature and composition; it covers composition alone–with the addition of such moral philosophy and ethics as the teacher thinks appropriate.

This is not bad, just premature, for you must learn to listen before you speak. Students must become adept at explaining the learned opinions of the wise before they focus on expressing their own ideas. The proper goal of a literary composition is to explain what the author said and what he meant by it, without any admixture of the student’s personal opinions. Until students can do this effectively, they have no business entering the Great Conversation with the author. Listening well and understanding an author on his own terms is an absolute prerequisite to expressing one’s own opinions.

If this is true, then literature and composition might best be considered in one of two ways. First, as a pair of complementary exercises in listening: reading to acquire the ideas of the author and writing to explain them. Second, as two separate subjects altogether: literature for reading and listening to the ideas of others; composition for writing and expressing our own. Let us not confuse literature with rhetoric; instead, let us consider them both in terms of the unique benefits that each can offer to the student.

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