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Teaching literature and K-to-12

/ 12:30 AM March 06, 2014

I had read in a slim philosophy textbook that the love of wisdom doesn’t bake bread. A year later I was an English major in a local college. Because a regular curriculum for a four-year program includes 15-18 units of English and literature courses, English teachers scarcely find themselves out of job even during lean semesters. Fast forward to 2013, the signing of Republic Act No. 10533 (more popularly known as the K-to-12 Act).  It appears that philosophy’s home truth has spread to English in a modified morph: English can’t bake enough bread. Because language and literature won’t be taught as general courses in college by 2016, teachers affiliated with colleges without elementary and high schools risk being displaced.

Last Feb. 15, Ateneo de Manila University hosted a national conference-workshop on “Literature, Region, and the World in K-12” attended by teachers from elementary to college levels. The large gathering confirmed the concern of many from the English Department about the trajectory of the discipline by 2016. The conference statement attempted to allay worry by “helping the teacher cope with the new curriculum from Grades 9 to 12.”

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More than a question of job security, RA 10533 compels English instructors to rethink literature as a discipline. What is its role amidst a corporatist attitude toward education which insists on measurable economic output? In the opening remarks, Ma. Luisa Torres Reyes (editor in chief of Kritika Kultura) bravely suggested a function of literature as critique, an inviolate space to “speak a new language in a possible world.” This means that even if literature may experience intermittent cooptation in a globalized economy, it retains a claim as the harbinger of questions that blitz hegemony with fault lines opening alternative perspectives.

For instance, Judy Celine Ick (University of the Philippines Diliman) shared her surprise that a nationalist hub such as UP offers a course on Shakespeare but doesn’t have one for another Filipino hero aside from Rizal. Where does this universal claim from a colonialist body of texts emanate? She attributed this universality not from a sole claim for the Bard’s genius, or perennial lessons from his plays. Shakespeare’s place in a postcolonial curriculum comes from the textual pliability of his dramas. British literary critic Terence Hawkes summed it up wittily: “Shakespeare doesn’t mean: we mean by Shakespeare.”

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Nevertheless, E. San Juan pointed out the dialectical relationship between our teaching profession and the students. Paradoxically, teachers aim to transform students into independent thinkers, but the learning process seems to pull the students toward a “banking” approach to education. They interpret the relationship as an accumulation of facts repeated to the teachers’ willing ears. As a result, critical thinking arises within the constricted limits imposed by hegemony. In other words, I can only be transgressive within the threshold of tolerance allowed by liberalism. Such irony is reenacted at a macrolevel between higher education institutions and the industry demanding graduates suited to think like “organization men.”

To salvage literature from its “uselessness,” one time-honored approach integrates it to language teaching. Literary texts are used as either jumping boards to teach language skills or as models for writing. Hence, literature is reduced to a rhetorical purpose. This practice becomes an excuse to justify the practical application of literature. However, the solution demotes literature to ancillary status because it pushes the discipline on the defensive, to be under surveillance. For example, how do I teach this as a model sentence: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” I quoted the beginning of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” which definitely won’t pass as teachable material for correct sentence structure.

From such limited supplemental function, much of literature must be jettisoned from our lesson plans. The overrated emphasis on grammar diminishes and-even-distorts the deconstructive possibility of literature to explore the fissures of language. Fantasizing a static language free from the parody of its speakers, stern guardianship of conformism spills over other aspects of linguistic performatives such as orthography and pronunciation. A few weeks ago, “Showtime,” a noontime program of ABS-CBN, was compelled to explain the mispronunciation of “confirmed” after it received tweets correcting the hosts. Of course, these netizens were smart to point this out. Yet within the program’s campy context, “I Am Pogay” allows for an unduly long “e” sound reminiscent of a joke on spotting who’s gay through the shibboleth “Kamuning.” It appears we’ve witnessed a lapse that provoked the purists (pronounce: furists).

In conclusion, literature as a distinct discipline tasks itself to speak a new language that may interrogate convention. Indeed, the results of teaching literature may be more difficult to measure than the sciences. Yet, to gauge its output through econometric standards is like judging a mango seed’s growth against a mongo seed’s germination. By teaching literature as critique, we fulfill a need beyond employment—the need toward self-actualization.

Cyril Belvis is assistant professor of literature at De La Salle Araneta University, Malabon City. He received a master’s degree from the Philippine Normal University.

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TAGS: “Finnegans Wake”, English Department, English Teacher, James Joyce, K-to-12 Act, Kritika Kultura, Language, literature, Ma. Luisa Torres Reyes, Republic Act No. 10533, Shakespeare
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