Voices in Education

The Role of Literature in our Age of Global Conflict
What is the role of Literature in our age of global conflict? The typical student of Literature confronts, on a frequent basis, news about terrorist attacks, asylum seekers capsizing en route to their destination, and other acts of violence toward minorities. In the classroom, however, the student is encouraged to become immersed in the fictional world, to appreciate the nuances of literary language, and to dissect the plot and characters in a text. Fiction becomes disconnected from reality; language is perceived as an instrument for aesthetic effects rather than as a means to understand others.

As George Hillocks reminds us, “high school curricula do not make it clear that, at the core, literature is concerned not only with character, plot, and setting but with moral and philosophical issues” (Hillocks, 2016, p. 109). Influenced by the movements of new criticism and reader response criticism emerging from the 1930s and 1970s respectively, Literature teaching in schools continues to emphasize aesthetic appreciation and “aesthetic reading” (Robsenblatt, 1994) of texts. Less attention has been given to the potential of Literature to facilitate ethical explorations of values in our world.
In the Literature classroom, enclosed reader-text transactions should be disrupted to accommodate the voice of the other, particularly the other who is marginalized, stereotyped, and whose values may be in conflict with our own. Given rising instances of terrorism, extremism, and xenophobia in our globalized world, I argue that cosmopolitan ethical criticism should be a core part of Literature education.

Cosmopolitanism, or “citizen of the world” as derived from the Greek, extends the Aristotelian view of ethics concerning “how should a human being live” to the more inclusive question of how one can live fully in relation to diverse others in the world (Jollimore & Barrios, 2006; Nussbaum, 1997). In practice, cosmopolitan ethical criticism shares post-structuralist criticism’s ethics of exposure through skeptical readings of texts that expose inherent ideological values (Critchley, 1999). However, post-structuralist criticism is limited by a preoccupation with power and presents a reductive view of ethics demonstrated by a tendency to reject rather than engage with values (Gregory, 2010). Conversely, cosmopolitan ethical criticism intentionally empowers students with ethical reasoning capacities to deliberate about values and its various moral ambiguities. In the process, students are equipped to apply foundational questions from ethical philosophy to reading literature and are given opportunities to explore practical and virtue ethics through texts.

 As opposed to didactic moral education that advocates the transmission of values codified in a normative list of dos and don’ts that serve to reinforce the values of the state or a dominant group in power, cosmopolitan ethical criticism equips students to explore how ethics is differentiated among communities and to recognize how it is also situated in particular histories and cultural practices (Calhoun, 2002; Dallmayr, 2003). As such, it resists the extremes of nationalism and imperialism, ethnocentrism and universalism, while pushing us to imagine new forms of belonging in our global age that are multiple rather than monolithic.
Calhoun, C. (2002). The class consciousness of frequent travellers: Toward a critique of actually existing
       cosmopolitanism. South Atlantic Quarterly, 101(4), 869–897.
Critchley, S. (1999). Ethics of deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Dallmayr, F. (2003). Cosmopolitanism: Moral and political. Political Theory, 31(3), 421–442.
Gregory, M. W. (2010). Redefining ethical criticism: The old vs. the new. Journal of Literary Theory, 4(2). http://www.jltonline.de/index.php/articles/article/view/287/879
Hillocks, G. (2016). The territory of literature. English Education, 48(2), 109–126.
Jollimore, T., & Barrios, S. (2006). Creating cosmopolitans: The case for literature. Studies in the Philosophy of        Education, 25(5), 363–383.
Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge,         MA: Harvard University Press.
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work.               
     Cardondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

About the Author: Suzanne S. Choo is Assistant Professor at the English Language and Literature Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She is the author of "Globalizing Literature Pedagogy: Applying Cosmopolitan Ethical Criticism to the Teaching of Literature" in the Fall 2017 issue of the Harvard Educational Review.