Literature & Individuality in the Classroom

Puppet by Michael Ellis

Puppet by Michael Ellis

When literature meets the academic herd

By Sana Hussain

In his 1891 essay, ‘The Soul of a Man under Socialism’,1 Oscar Wilde wrote: “Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of Individualism the world has known”. Like many of his other aphorisms about the meaning and purpose of art, this statement expounds on the art-consumer relationship. Wilde contends that the most powerful and truest way to express the self is through engagement with Art. However, despite the elegance and terseness of the phrase, when thought of within the context of a literature syllabus in Pakistan these words lose their impact. For in order to actualize what Wilde says about the elevating purpose of Art, the nature of engagement the consumer undergoes merits closer inspection.

Unfortunately, in a country with a rich tradition of literature, and one that has and continues to produce prolific writers and poets, the pursuit of literature suffers. The whole process of education, from the students’ decision to pursue the subject down to its tuition and grading, is governed by an attitude of mimicry, lacking both individuality and originality. Due to a number of socio-cultural factors, students decide to study literature in college or universities, even when they are not passionate, either about writing or its far more essential cousin reading, which can be traced back to a lingering colonial mindset that exalts all things English as a matter of superior status and prestige. Often, when teachers have asked new students why they chose to study literature, the overwhelming response has been, “to learn English”. This indicates a collective misconception on the part of an entire body of students whereby they are unable to differentiate between a language course and literature. Yet they decide to study it, just to conform to popular belief. This herd behaviour, which springs from class imbalances and colonial vestiges, is one of the reasons why literature courses in Pakistan are fraught with monotony, discouraging independent thinking along with the ability to question, analyse and criticise.

The practice of penalizing rather than rewarding independent analysis and originality quashes any individualistic tendency students might have, forcing them to become a part of the herd and exist only as an extension of the general collective society.
While studying literature based on an interest in learning a language may seem like a misguided motive, one of the most absurd and ridiculous reasons I’ve heard from postgraduate students is that a degree in English Literature makes one (read: a girl) eligible for a suitable matrimonial match. As outlandish as this may sound, in Pakistan this is one of the legitimate reasons why some girls pursue a literature degree. While this issue is more a reflection on Pakistani society and the warped cultural ideals of its people, one can imagine how a classroom of such students would engage with Art given their motivation.

While the students’ choice of studying a particular discipline is certainly their own, no matter how absurd or misguided it may seem to others, the apathy of taught literature in the country could very well be attributed to the blind acceptance in the standardized form the subject is taught and graded in. And though this is cause for concern for the education system at large – i.e. the bland uniformity in pedagogue – that it extends to the arts in general and literature in particular, is far more worrying. These subjects, that in their essence imbibe creativity and awaken independent thinking, are taught in a way that lay waste to any individuality that a student might offer, churning out a homogenous mass of clones, each having the same uninspired take on a work of literature as the next. In most cases, students are merely taught to come up with standard, unimaginative answers that are both what have been taught and expected, and what will earn them a good grade. Independent thinking or an individualistic take on a literary text is seldom encouraged by teachers when thinking is truly the cornerstone in education, especially education in the arts. Without it, students may never realize their potential as critical thinkers or have the confidence to express themselves, and instead continuing to read literatures as disengaged perusers of information, failing to engage or connect meaningfully with any literary text.

This lack of independent thought and perpetuation of a conformist mind-set is further cemented by the heavy reliance on guidebooks (the local equivalents to SparkNotes and CliffNotes), by both teachers and students. These guidebooks, while comprehensive and detailed in their explanation of stock questions to most literary texts, are the prime example of the herd mentality that defines literary education in Pakistan. Written by writers who are themselves products of this uninspired education system, these books provide students with ready-made, unoriginal answers which they rote learn and reproduce verbatim on the exam answer sheet. Based on the common practices of a typical classroom, it is very much possible that a cursory analysis of exam papers from the past two decades till date would show identical questions and identical responses being replicated year after year. This severe and worrying lack of individuality also does not seem to be a cause of concern for a majority of educationists, as very little is being done to reform the system. Moreover, the practice of penalizing rather than rewarding independent analysis and originality further quashes any individualistic tendency students might have, forcing them to become a part of the herd and exist only as an extension of the general collective society.

Literature, a discipline that is constantly expanding and evolving, merits constant innovations and revisions in its curriculum as well. Sadly, this is another aspect of Pakistani teaching of literature that falls short of what is required. For decades, the syllabi of literature programs has remained the same, save for minor modifications. The whole situation is one of stagnancy; stories like Saadat Hassan Manto’s ‘The New Constitution’,2 included in the undergraduate literature syllabus, still censor pregnancy as well as Hinduism, based on the instructions of a dictator many decades ago, indicating the crucial need for innovation and reform in Pakistan’s literature syllabus. Moreover, adherence to a strictly rigid outline of literary texts, selected without much thought to the students’ individual tastes or contemporary literature, reinforces an established standard that caters to a collective group rather than to the tastes of individual students. It also restricts students and their literary exposure to the past, barring any insight into the contemporary world of literature. Moreover, a firmly set course outline also means a standardized set of exam questions which eliminates the practice of additional reading, an exercise that undoubtedly contributes in promoting imagination and critical thinking among students.

In order to address this attitude of unimaginativeness that literature classrooms in the country breed, both the syllabus and the teaching methodology in literature programs need to be revisited. More contemporary titles should be added to courses rooted in the Western cannon so that students are able to relate more with what they are reading. They also need to be familiarized with the literary heritage of their own region, as well as contemporary works by Pakistani authors and poets writing in English to generate interest. The focus needs to shift from exam and grade-oriented study of literature to an approach that encourages critical thinking and questioning of established ideas.

But more importantly, the pedagogy currently employed in literature classrooms needs to be overhauled to introduce a more stimulating approach, one where students’ participation is encouraged and their ideas appreciated. Instead of snubbing every creative thought a student has in favour of the expected opinions, teachers need to embolden students to explore different perspectives and ultimately form their own opinions about what they think the writer is saying. This can come about through unorthodox teaching styles as well as a reform in the examination patterns. Stock questions result in stock answers. Creative approaches to the same questions can prompt students to think; questions that ask students to draw a courtroom scenario and prepare a defence for Macbeth would elicit far more unique responses than one that asks them to explain Macbeth’s hamartia. However, it is highly unlikely like these changes are going to be implemented anytime soon in literature programs in Pakistan; at least not in government-run colleges and universities where they are most needed. The monotony of this style is only reinforced, as teachers who have gone through the motions to obtain a degree in literature repeat the same uninspired process for their students, without any serious efforts for innovation or experimentation.

So, quite contrary to the grand purpose envisioned by Wilde, the teaching and studying of literature in most instances in Pakistan is an exercise that snuffs out rather than engenders individualism. With both teachers and students conforming to the established and derivative means of engaging with literary texts, and no apparent urgency to change the status quo, it is hard to imagine a time when Art will indeed be the most powerful and the truest means of eliciting individualism. It is crucial to understand too, how this dearth of originality and individuality in the classroom is damaging for academia as a whole in the country. Failing to provide a space conducive to the development of original ideas and independent thoughts, will have lasting detrimental consequences on the country’s intellectual culture. Teachers must defy the creed “those who can’t do, teach” and become the role models to their students, living “lives that are not merely satiated but wildly meaningful”.3 Only then does an academic revolution have a chance to bear fruit.

 

Endnotes

  1. Wilde, Oscar, ‘The Soul of a Man Under Socialism’ fr. ‘Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde’; HarperCollins, 2003
  2. Manto, Saadat Hassan, ‘The New Constitution’ fr. ‘The Life and Works of Saadat Hassan Manto’, tr. by Naqvi, Tahira; Vanguard Books, 1985
  3. Wilkinson, Rachel, Dystopian Literature to a Consumer Class’, English Journal, Vol. 99, January 2010
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