There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry.
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll;
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul!
So wrote Emily Dickinson almost 200 years ago; for me, these words still hold true and are dear to my heart. I have always loved literature, largely because of the sentiments expressed in Dickinson's poem. A great story, an engaging novel, or a beautifully metered poem give me affordable access to foreign lands, intriguing eras of the past or predictions of the future, insightful observations about human behaviour and consciousness and most importantly, unexpected revelations about the deepest levels of my 'self'.
Unfortunately, as a literature major in college, I frequently found myself loving literature less, not more, because the level of analysis was so abstractly intellectual. Those questions that interested me the most—what am I learning about history or culture, what am I learning about the human condition, and what am I learning about myself—were relegated to the basement while we tackled such papers as The Role of the Fool in Shakespeare or Metaphor and Agency in the Work of James Joyce. Don't get me wrong—there is plenty of great learning happening through in-depth literary analysis, but I wanted that learning to connect to my life and my choices as to how I might live it. That need largely went unmet.
These were the memories I pondered intently when I began teaching high school English at Oak Grove School. I wanted the students to love our study of literature, and I wanted them to feel its relevance to their lives. After much trial and error developing 'essential questions' for my units of study, one day I had an 'aha' moment—why not utilize those three simple questions I had asked myself when I first developed a passion for literature? The result was rich, deep, and for the most part engaging and enjoyable for the students.
What am I learning about history and/or culture?
Depending on the text, this question can be the most straightforward of the three. Students can take note of the historical or cultural information related or inferred via the text. Students note observations in their reading logs as information comes to them, documenting textual evidence to support their observations. For example, in a text like The Awakening by Kate Chopin, students would note observations about the historical period and place, including cultural norms around patriarchy, marriage, motherhood, woman's independence, gender relationships, hierarchies of power and class issues. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, students would record observations about racial injustice, issues of class, gender roles, and attitudes towards innocence in the American South of the mid-20th century.
Some texts allow for more complex observations about history and culture. For example, Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which utilizes a previous time in history (the Salem witch trials) as an allegory about a contemporary issue (McCarthyism), provides an opportunity to learn both about early American colonial life and the mid-20th century McCarthy era. Likewise, a dystopian novel such as 1984 by George Orwell provides an opportunity to learn about the historical period around when the novel was written and what forces were at work to compel the author to write this book. It also allows the reader to look backwards from the present time and consider a work about "the future" from the point of view of a future beyond.
All sorts of sub-sets to the question of historical/cultural learning also arise: How do we know if this depiction is historically accurate? From whose point of view are we seeing history? What voices might be missing? How is the cultural perspective of the author possibly influencing the writing?
What am I learning about the human condition?
Within the context of a Krishnamurti school, this question initiates deep and interesting discussion. The students begin with clarifying what we mean by the human condition. For high school students this is most simply explained as human behaviour that appears to trap the individual into outcomes that they don't necessarily anticipate or want, but at some level cannot help because of their 'humanness'. It gives the students an opportunity to take a close look at human behaviour, the underlying motivation of that behaviour, and/or the unconscious manifestation of behaviour, without any sense of fear or exposure from their own lives or the lives around them. Consideration of the human condition includes human nature, human society and the fundamental issues of human existence.
In some ways, a piece of literature that tries to describe and engage with this 'human condition' is exactly why we call it literature as opposed to pulp fiction. Literature that thematically explores and asks the reader to consider such questions as how we live our lives, deal with death, experience love, fear, loss, alienation or relationship is worthy of study and stands the test of time. Likewise, literature that questions whether we are inherently good or evil, whether we are determined by genetics or environment, or whether we are controlled by destiny or free will, is rich material for the high school classroom. And finally, if a piece of literature asks us to consider our relationship to each other, our sense of equity and social justice, or our relationship to nature and the environment, the impact on high school students will be noteworthy.
As an example, while studying a novel such as Lord of the Flies by William Golding, we suggest that students consider what they observe about 'the human condition' while they read. Do they think humans by nature are driven to be 'civilized'—following rules and behaving morally—or are humans by nature driven to seek power over others, act selfishly and indulge in gratuitous violence? Where, on the scale of human behaviour, would individual students see themselves in Golding's novel and why? What are the roots of anger, violence, or the need to dominate another? Is it possible to free ourselves from these inclinations? These lead seamlessly into the questions Krishnamurti was so keen to have us explore.
What am I learning about myself?
This can be the most challenging question for high school students; it can also be the best access point to a piece of literature when the teacher is having trouble getting the students to go beyond 'I liked (or didn't like) this book'. When there is either a positive or negative response to a text, it is interesting to probe into the root of the student response. Just as in life, it is easier for the student or teacher to either wax lyrical or be critical about a particular character, scene, or dialogue than to ask what it is in themselves that is reacting in this particular way and why.
I first discovered the power of this question when I taught the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to my 10th grade students. The class unanimously responded to the reading with 'I hate this book!' and I was struggling to know how to move forward. Before even tackling the questions of what we could learn about history and culture or what we could learn about the human condition, I needed a way to get the students over their extreme negative reaction. What better way than to ask: What is it in you that is reacting so strongly and why?
After much discussion, the students and I began to make a connection between the struggles they were feeling as teenagers and the struggle of Okonkwo. At some unconscious level, the students were reacting to Okonkwo as a character representative of their own closely felt dilemmas regarding parental pressure, peer pressure, and societal pressure to 'measure up'. The students often, like Okonkwo, felt one way and acted another in order to keep up appearances and expectations. Once these associations were explored and discussed, the students were able to have a more empathetic relationship to Okonkwo's character and we were ready to proceed with analysis of the text, looking at what we were learning about history and culture and the human condition.
Through this article I have attempted to share some reflections on using three simple questions to explore the 'frugal Chariot that bears the Human soul!' I don't teach high school English anymore, but in retrospect I realize how fortunate I was to teach in a Krishnamurti school environment, one that fosters inquiry at the most profound levels. As Krishnamurti says in Education and the Significance of Life, 'To understand life is to understand ourselves, and is both the beginning and the end of education.' I'm confident that my students learnt the skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and I hope that those skills continue to serve them well; but more importantly I know that our literature classroom provided a place to explore our understanding of the world, ourselves and life as a whole.