How should we be teaching English Literature ?

An Sonjae (Brother Anthony)
Sogang University, Seoul

(Note: Just after completing this article, I read Russell A. Berman's paper "Reform and Continuity: Graduate Education Toward a Foreign Cultural Literacy" in the 1997 issue of Profession (MLA) and was struck to see a number of similar points made in a much more clearly presented way)

 It is quite possible today to affirm that there is no clear and obvious reason why literature of any kind should be taught in the modern university, which in every part of the world is increasingly defining itself everywhere as a social institution designed to prepare skilled young people for jobs in major sectors of a nation's economy, be it industry or business, and to do advanced research in those areas in collaboration with business and industry. The ancient model of the university enshrined in the Humanities College is of almost no relevance to the needs which underlie governments' and corporations' readiness to provide funding for higher education. However, we who teach English literature have to respond to the radical challenge facing us in terms other than 'save my job.'

 The obvious question, then, one that should perhaps come before that in the title, is surely : 'Why teach English Literature in the university ?' One reply to that question is : Because we professors have studied it. Now that does not get us very far along the road we want to follow. Yet, as a matter of fact, if until now almost every Korean university has had a Department of English Language and Literature, in which many if not most courses were consecrated to British and American literature, that was because they were following the model previously found in a large majority at least of the American colleges and universities where, in a Humanities College, a department of English offered the Graduate School program taken by the Koreans who went to study there in the 1970s.

 This essay does not intend to pursue the historical survey very far ; it is a familiar story and looking into the past never helped much in searching for radically new solutions to a problem.  At the outset however, we do need to see that when the curriculum of the English department program in Korean universities took shape, it was strongly imitative of that found in the US. Yet in the US, English is the native language, in Korea it is extremely foreign. One might, in retrospect, think that it would have been better to have imitated the structures of American foreign language departments in setting up the Korean universities' English departments. This was not done, and perhaps as a result the more practical aspects of the language-learning side were largely ignored, if not positively despised.

 When Sogang University was first established, the thoughtful foreign priests arriving from the US, Europe, and Japan, wished to limit themselves to setting up a very small Humanities College offering high-quality education in a small range of subjects to a small number of highly talented students. Quality was to be the main concern, and one of their first innovations was to establish a separate 'General English' program with highly qualified faculty. However, they were soon informed that 'good' students would only apply for a properly certified, fully-equipped university which meant they were obliged to establish colleges of science and engineering and a graduate school as well. The conformism inherent at so many levels of Korean culture effectively prevented any attempt at offering some alternative models of higher education.

 Now it is not possible to give a proper answer to the question how English Literature should be taught in Korean universities if we do not have any clear idea about what Korean universities are for, how they should operate, and what kind of education they should be giving at the start of the 21st century. We need to come to some kind of agreement on these questions first, since that will give us information on what kind of education we should be giving to what kind of students for what kind of society. Unfortunately, those most inclined to answer those questions seem most hostile to the traditional concept of the University as a place of Humane Studies.

 It must be said that the program so far followed by many Korean English departments is really only useful  to undergraduates wishing to study literature at Graduate School. Graduate School studies in English Literature in turn are in their present form only meaningful to people who hope to become the new teachers of English literature to the next generation of undergraduates, always assuming that the curriculum remains unchanged. Do all the Korean undergraduate students majoring in English really have to learn about Shakespeare or Steinbeck or Wordsworth? This is not a question of the canon, it is a question about the way literature has for so long dominated the curriculum. Now we all know that the high-school students we interview for admission all speak of their desire to gain better language-skills, while few or none express a deep interest in studying literature.

 The explanation for this divergence between student-expectations and the actual curriculum is probably, as suggested previously, simply because the English department faculty members have decided they will teach those things which they learned in the way they learned them and as they want to teach them. Until very recently, at least, they did not have to worry about what the students actually wanted to study, or needed to study, or what society wanted them to know. Students are notoriously unable to say what they want, in any case. Certainly, Korean society has failed to give any very helpful indications.

 One essential problem is by now quite clear : the Department of English Language and Literature is part of what is today the least significant section of the university, financially speaking. Departments of Science and Engineering are closely linked to the world of industry, they teach subjects and receive funding to do research on questions that relate directly to the outside world where a new process or a better-trained graduate leads immediately to higher profits. Another section casting a potential shadow over the Humanities is that of Business and Management, equally pragmatic and modern, offering courses designed to prepare students to engage in the modern world and to make money for their employing company if not for themselves. Such departments also have links to powerful businesses, they receive large grants of funding for research, their programs are 'useful'.

 Now we come to two essential points. Literature is not 'useful' in science or business, and it was not written to be studied in universities. It is studied in universities because centuries ago the works of Virgil and Homer ceased to be 'literature' and became 'classics' which could be studied as models in both style and content. By extension, the classics, ancient or modern, were seen to be helpful in forming the true gentleman, which was Newman's vision of the function of the university. It is not certain that the modern Korean university is much interested in forming educated gentlemen.

 Modern British and American universities are facing a similar crisis in the Humanities ; they sometimes justify the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, philology by claiming that society is less in need of technical expertise, since techniques are constantly changing, than of people who have learned to think deeply and clearly about a variety of fundamental questions. Such people will be creative and adaptable throughout their working life, and will be prepared to pursue the ongoing formation that is an inevitable consequence of the rapid pace of change in the modern world. There is much to be said for this, but it has certainly not often been said in Korea.

 Another challenge facing universities all over the world is the nature of the link between teaching and research. In the eyes of governments and funding agencies, the research being done in departments of science, technology, and business, is objective stuff that can be planned and evaluated relatively easily. The research being done by professors and graduates in English literature may (to them at least) seem very interesting and worthwhile, but it can never claim any direct social utility and can never lead to financial profits.

 We need to stress the value of teaching young people to think, because that (and certainly not business letter writing) is probably the only real justification for any Humanities program. By the courses we teach, we hope that our students may learn to ask good questions, search for acceptable reasonable answers, confront reality and reflect about ideas in creative and challenging ways. In this vision, the study of literature cannot be separated from that of philosophy, and history, while English and American literature cannot be separated from Korean, French, Chinese or German literature (to say nothing of Indian, African or Australian).

 In Sogang University, we have recently created a new major known as 'British and American Cultures' offered in parallel with the more traditional 'language, literature and linguistics' major.  We still have to see what proportion of students will choose the literature major. A difficulty in many places is the lack of dialogue and proper reflexion in introducing such changes. Naturally academics have always been better at resisting change than at initiating it, but what we often find are situations where ill-prepared changes are imposed by university administrations under pressure from the Ministry of Education. The professors serving in administrative positions may know nothing of the humanities and have little sympathy for their arcane disciplines ; we all know science and business professors who seriously reckon that the English department professors ought mostly if not only to be teaching 'useful' things like science English or business English.

 What is at stake, then, is not simply 'English Literature' but the Humanities College as a whole. In the modern university, worldwide, with its growing links to business interests, the area of languages, literature, philosophy, history, is no longer valued, or it is granted only nominal recognition in the name of respect for the past. Perhaps a healthier attitude is that found in Hong Kong, Singapore and even parts of Japanese society where the state has openly decided that higher education in the Humanities should not be available for too many people precisely because it encourages the asking of awkward questions and the challenging of received opinions. It creates non-conformists! One reason why Mrs Thatcher was so hostile to the universities (Oxford refused to give her an honorary doctorate) was surely because someone who has studied the humanities may end up asking awkward questions, raising objections to government policy, and even claiming that money and the market are not the most important values in life !

 If it is not at least part of our aim to teach our students that independent thought and rational self-expression are far more valuable than sterile memorization and parrot-like repetition, it ought to be. That is surely what the name 'Humanities' means in today's unthinking, uncaring, inhuman societies. It is an essential role of those teaching and studying in the Humanities to resist and challenge the empty vision of life being increasingly incarnated in society and even in the other sections of the university. 'Life' is today often paraphrased by the more fashionable word 'culture' and we should be preparing our students to think about life by awakening in them a critical response to their own culture,  by introducing them to other, different cultures, ways of living and of talking about life.

 Comparative cultural studies were first invented by the Greek Sophists ; Socrates added the demand that they should include reflexion about absolute moral values as well. So long as Korean students are allowed to choose majors in the Humanities, it is the task of those teaching them to ensure that they are taught to think well, to ask good questions about everything, and to communicate creatively. The works of literature and of philosophy that are worth reading ask their readers to do precisely that, as their authors did before they wrote and while they wrote. The recent proliferation of jargon-filled 'theory' in literary studies has sometimes obscured this, with the utterly pessimistic doctrine seemingly expressed by some that nothing has meaning or reference. In that case, better not waste time studying at all. Yet theory too is asking some very important questions about literature, life, and society : the roles of gender ; the value of the natural world ; the meaning of meaning ; even the possibility of finding the good, the beautiful, and the true !

 One potentially troubling feature in the recent trend toward multi-disciplinary culture majors is a failure to recognize that each discipline has its own fundamental rules that have to be learned. Someone who has not mastered the basic rules of symbolic logic will not be able to follow a course in modern British philosophy ; someone who has not learned how to analyze the structure of a play will not write a very useful study of a work of modern drama or cinema. We must not be asked to teach unprepared students superficial facts 'about' Shakespeare or Plato or modern American society. We have to invent new ways of developing our students' analytical and reflective abilities through contact with literary texts of past and present (it is an act of cultural cowardice to exclude the older texts).

 In teaching works of literature (in the broadest sense, including philosophy, art, music...) we should be inviting our students to formulate their own 'readings' of them. The disciplines of literary studies, of philosophy, history, music, art, each have separate ways of doing their work, their own forms of specific discourse, but in the end they work together to form an educated, thinking, human person. Understanding of metaphoric discourse, awareness of multiple responses to complex situations, of the complexities of moral thought, and the relative nature of all language, underlie all our separate humanities disciplines ; they are all of them essentially subversive.

 "You may lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink" is a common English proverb which can be paraphrased: "You may ask your students to read a  book, but you cannot make them think." Luckily, many of our students seem to quite ready to drink deeply, if we invite them to read in an active way with open minds. In the past, at least, a common method of teaching English literature in the Korean university classroom seems to have had the professor translating from a text, or even a book about a text, to a room full of dozing students. This really will not do. The students have to be given space for discussion among themselves in small groups about their reading, they have to do class-preparation, and they have to come to the point where they can make provocative class-presentations. It seems increasingly difficult to justify the professorial monologue as a teaching method, although lazier students may welcome it, since it ignores their lack of preparation and knowledge.

 At the same time, given the fairly obvious fact that the department of English Language and Literature is a 'foreign language department,' it is really very difficult to explain just why Korean universities advertising new teaching positions in their English departments invariably require a Ph.D. in some arcane area of literature or linguistics but virtually never demand even a diploma or an M.A. in Teaching English as a Foreign Language although much if not all their teaching will certainly be, directly or indirectly, a form of advanced language-teaching. The scorn with which the more onerous tasks of teaching composition, spoken English, report-writing, are viewed by most full-time professors is shocking ; in almost all universities such courses are regularly given to part-time lecturers or junior faculty, while older faculty refuse to teach them (although that may also be an act of kindness to the students, and of honesty on their part). This attitude must change and university administrations must also begin to advertise for faculty whose main qualification is in the area of English language teaching, otherwise there is no hope.

 Within a few years it is likely that in many universities, at least, students will simply be admitted to the Humanities Section and be left completely free to compose their own menu of studies. The result will be students who are both happier and better educated, and a good number of redundant professors. This trend, which is already under way, has direct consequences for the future of the Graduate School. From now on, we must realize that those applying to study for an M.A. in English literature will usually have very little solid grounding. We are already seeing increasing numbers of  people applying for admission to the M.A. program with no previous experience of studying English literature at all. At present we usually reject such applications, which we consider should be made to the undergraduate program. Perhaps we should revise our M.A. programs instead ? We could very easily propose courses slightly less 'academic' than at present, but aimed at a less well-grounded public and more consciously patterned to serve as an introduction to reading literature intelligently with pleasure.

 It must be said that there has been far too much uniformity in Korean English departments. There is no reason why the programs offered by the older universities in Seoul and those offered by newly-opened institutions in provincial cities should be similar. The young faculty-members of newly-established universities should be encouraged to set up radically different programs that will correspond to the needs and possibilities of their students, which does not mean limiting them to translating Time Magazine into Korean, although that could form the basis for a wide-ranging exposure to the disciplines of Cultural Studies....

 The new generation of students will probably be very different from those of the past,  much more difficult to teach, more resistant and critical. Their exposure from childhood to television will mean that they have reduced attention spans. They will also have a much clearer view of what they want and do not want, they will be more articulate. In brief, they will be very like young people in other continents. All of this is good news. Also important, more and more of our students have spent time abroad, in Europe or America, they have become more cosmopolitan, more adult.

 An important topic in this investigation must therefore be the role of the Internet, and the international communications which it facilitates. Students do not know as much about using the Web seriously as we might think, they are easily overwhelmed by the quantity of what is available, but since an ability to make Web pages and familiarity with the Internet is already a fundamental part of job qualifications, we ought to be exploring ways of integrating the Web into our teaching. There is no place in the university of tomorrow for professors who have never clicked a mouse.

 We seem not to have talked much about how to teach English literature. In many ways there is not much to say ; the main question is whether a teacher of literature loves it or not. There are many ways in which students can be helped to love reading and thinking, or turned away from them. Some teachers may prefer to initiate them first to the variety of literary structures, others to the historical contexts, or to more modern approaches ; but in any case, the overly abstract, aesthetic and theoretical ways in which literature has so far been taught, often without reference to the history and culture of the society in which it was written, and without concern for what today's Korean students can learn from it for their own lives, have to be changed.

 This is the great advantage of re-locating the study of literature within a wider cultural context. By expanding the study of 'Language and Literature' to include other areas of the humanities curriculum, students will be helped to gain a much deeper as well as broader knowledge of the history and culture of other countries, and their own. Literature will not be excluded, and many will continue to find in it the most exciting part of the course. So our Korean English literature programs will be able to introduce coming generations of students to the joys of intelligent reading.