Since the beginning, education has consistently included certain elements which are considered imperative for the student to master in order to be functional in a civilized society: the maths, science, history, literature, writing and rhetoric are the mainstays of a well-rounded education. This has changed little over the centuries, although the teaching of rhetoric in public schools seems to have been curtailed considerably. But I am coming to feel that literature, as an educational discipline, desperately needs to be expanded and modernized in order to equip the up-coming generation in discernment and understanding of the world around them.
The entire reason for the educative process is to transmit the knowledge and wisdom of all the previous generations of a society to the newest generation. For thousands of years, this was done orally and then both orally and through the written word. Why do we make our children study literature in school? Because novels are cool? Well, yes, novels are totally cool. But the stories from our past tell us where we came from, who we are as a people, and what our ancestors learned about themselves and the world that is worth knowing. Rather than let each generation start from scratch and re-invent the wheel over and over again, why not just tell our children what we know so that they can build on our head start? This is true in the sciences, in the maths, in our history (so that they aren’t doomed to repeat it!), and in our literature. Our stories reveal the deepest truths about ourselves as humans in ways that science and history never can. We are wired to learn through stories. Our myths and legends, parables and analogies, mysteries and science fictions reach us on an emotional and spiritual level that, ironically, cannot be expressed in mere words.
For over one hundred years now, our story-telling has taken on a new dimension as movies and television have progressed and become more easily accessible and thus more and more popular. I’m not writing this to express whether I believe this is a good thing or a bad thing–it simply is. And since the visual media is not likely to go away, we should be dealing with it as a branch of “literature” and teaching our children how to appreciate it as an art form, just as we teach plays, short stories, novels, and poetry. There are some quite amazingly well-made movie and television programs available, but unfortunately they are not generally the most popular.
I am not including documentaries in this discussion. These programs are valuable and some of them are remarkably well-made. As tools for teaching science and history, they are becoming increasingly important. But they are not literature, any more than text books are literature. I am limiting my discussion to story-making.
When I teach literature, I naturally point out the elements of story, the character development, the symbology and meaning behind the story, and the importance of what it shows us about ourselves and the world around us. These elements are present in movies and television, as well; or, at least, they should be. It’s exciting to find a movie that not only weaves a ripping yarn but also teaches us something meaningful and shows us universal truths. It’s also exciting to find a television series that carries the story along from week to week and allows the characters to grow and change in a way that shows us something about the human condition. If these stories are well told, they can be as valuable to us as books and plays and poetry.
But there is more to great literature than story and character. Literature is made up of words, and part of the joy of teaching about literature is pointing out the special use of the words to convey emotion and spiritual meaning. The look of the words; they way they sound together; the flow of the narrative; the choice of active or passive voice; all these elements are as important to the story as the story itself. Such tools as alliteration, anthropomorphism, metaphor, rhythm–these are important to prose as well as to poetry as the words paint pictures in the mind and spirit. A good author can make you feel whatever he wants you to feel by choosing his words well.
With visual media, the methods are necessarily different, but the idea is the same. By the careful use of lighting, sound effects, background music, camera angles, colors, and set dressing, the director can manipulate the emotions of the viewer however he pleases. These things are subtle, but powerful, and can enhance the story or ruin it. And, of course, there is the importance of the performance. Even if all of the other elements are present and perfect, poor acting will destroy the entire work. On the other hand, superb acting can lift an otherwise mediocre work into something enjoyable and meaningful.
These elements must be taught, though, in order to be appreciated. Without this appreciation, people are all too often satisfied with banality and cliché. If people will pay their hard-earned money to watch drivel, studios will continue to offer us drivel. In the past, great literature has shaped the minds of the people and affected change for good in society. Visual media has this potential as well, when it is used to good purpose rather than to merely titillate and amuse. The BBC has been doing this well for years–I can only hope that America will catch up one day.