The case of isolated teaching

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Teaching literature in today’s India is a rather challenging task, says a teacher of English literature, Deepti Nair. Rote and mechanical learning, as also other modern distractions, kill the beauty and wonder of literary works. Often, literature is taught in splendid isolation, which also doesn’t help the cause, she rues.

Growing up in ‘prehistoric times’, as my kids put it, there was nothing to beat the excitement of getting a new book. Immersing myself in another time or place, sharing another person’s skin, escaping completely from the real world; these were the pleasures to be found in the paperback realm.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is no longer the case with most kids today. Working with teenagers, I’ve discovered they have their own set of escapes and their own fantastic worlds to occupy, but, sadly, they don’t necessarily need words to take them there. And while I don’t mean to disparage their modern interests, I do think something has been lost in translation.

The magic of literature

The literature of any time, be it philosophical treatises or fast paced fiction, carries with it a subtle essence of the world it came from, like a source code. This is what makes writing such a miraculous thing. Stories of any kind don’t just tell a tale, they invite you to join them, much like a virtual reality programme, the difference being that your imagination gets to be the programmer of much of the code.

Jane Austen allowed us a chance to live in her world, share its joys and anxieties, laugh at its silliness, and chafe at its limitations. Margaret Mitchell didn’t just tell a tale of a headstrong, vain girl and her tumultuous coming of age, but also made us feel the chaos and fear that is experienced when social and political structures are turned on their heads. They wrote about life. They made unseen places real. They created universes.

So teaching literature for me is not about explain- ing a text, but creating a reader. Teaching a person how to enter that world without resisting it, so that they can have the authentic experience the writer wants to share, and understand the many worlds within ours. In the Indian schooling system, teaching English literature can be fraught with peril and a English teacher had better have a sense of humour. Today’s tiger moms want to raise Pulitzer Prize winners – or at least board exam toppers – even though their kids have never opened a book, and we have to steal a line or two from Ezekiel’s professor and say: “I am not against. We have to change with times. Whole world is changing. In India also We are keeping up. Our progress is progressing. Old values are going, new values are coming.”
Very often, English is not spoken or read much at home and idiomatic expression and nuance is often alien to the reader. And the result of explaining some of this is the same as explaining a joke. One is often flogging a dead horse. (Need an explanation, anyone?) The solution, of course is to read more, but that suggestion is usually met with screams of outrage and mutterings that this teacher has clearly lost it.

The elephant in the room

There is, of course, the elephant in the room. Can I really expect a child to enjoy reading a book or engage themselves in its atmosphere when they need to be able to recollect who said this line to whom, and where they were standing at that point? One has to knock Shakespeare off his pedestal (which I doubt he ever wanted to be put on) before one can get a child to see it as a story, and not something to be seen as inscrutable just because it’s in verse (and in five acts).

Explaining that Shakespeare wrote to entertain, and be watched, making him more akin to Spielberg doesn’t help, because all that just adds to their sense of injury (“Why on earth are we studying it for an exam, then?”). The only thing to do is focus on the whys of the story, highlighting the clever magic of a master of human psychology… and hope that a spark of interest will be kindled.

But perhaps the worst thing we do as a system, ensuring that most kids will develop a mild distaste for literature at some point, is teaching it in isolation. As an educator, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to learn that my son in the 7th grade was memorising the different crops that are grown in the southern states of the USA and the Caribbean , notably tobacco , sugar and cotton, but had no clue that it these plantations were inextricably linked to the growth of slavery as a profitable business in that part of the world. He also had no clue of the creole culture and jazz music that was produced as a result of this period in history, or of the fascinating process of the emancipation of these slaves or of the turmoil of the civil rights movement, and the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by our very own Mahatma Gandhi, as was that other famous pacifist and rebel, Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps this was the point at which to insert some of the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King junior and Maya Angelou and Saroji- ni Naidu . Ideally, without rote memory testing.

Personally, I learnt more about the cotton plantations, slavery, and the American Civil War from reading Gone With the Wind, than a text book. The right piece of fiction can lead to interest and discovery and learning which is fun and not forced. African Geography and History can and should be paired with The Snows of Kilimanjaro or Willard Price’s African Adventure for the younger reader, just as a fillet of fish should be paired with a crisp white wine. They complement each other beautifully, with a heady bouquet of basic psychology, and notes of adventure and daredevilry.

And closer to home, there’s the surreal experience of seeing India through Western eyes to highlight its aura of oriental mystery and romance. Reading The Far Pavilions in my teens gave me a fascinating, and undoubtedly highly romanticised idea of India during the British Raj, and suddenly, the banal and familiar became exotic and desirable. Lest you get carried away, you have Nehru, E.M. Forster and Jim Corbett to add a real flavour to what one’s imagination cooks up.

What it boils down to, is getting the idea across that books are about life, and not exams; and let’s face it, that’s a tough row to hoe. Sometimes one is just throwing bits of books at young minds and hoping that something will stick. It can be as comical as Jeeves playing the puppeteer to Bertie Wooster, but that’s another author whose whimsy I’ve been able to share with just a few. Those few , however, make all the craziness worthwhile, for they are willing to enter the great modern unknown in India – the world of words.


Deepti Nair

An artist and an educator, Deepti Nair tries to keep the art alive in teaching, and hopes to continue her education in Art. For her, words can be a highly visual medium which finds a balance in her love of art that communicates wordlessly.

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