Why Are Schools Abandoning Literature?

Stephanie Cohen:

recently spent time with a class of fourteen-year-olds, talking about words, specifically words strung together to form speech. I started out by asking them whether they thought words could make people act in a particular way. “Can words lead to action?” I asked. There was some thinking and mulling over.

We spent several weeks discussing, reading, and studying many of the greatest (and infamous) words read aloud: the Gettysburg Address, Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in Germany, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, a host of Winston Churchill speeches from World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speeches, and some of the best contemporary commencement addresses given in the US in recent years. Many of these speeches were written in reaction to events, and most of them called on their respective audiences to do something (be calm, have fortitude, ensure victory, reach for success). Whether or not the words we read actually shaped (or changed) history can be debated, but the more important question is whether words can shape conscience, which affects not just one action but a lifetime of actions. This is something teachers have long relied on the power of literature to do.