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why do we need to study ancient literature

Literature is part of our cultural heritage which is freely available to everyone, and which can enrich our lives in all kinds of ways. Once we have broken the barriers that make studying literature seem daunting, we find that literary works can be entertaining, beautiful, funny, or tragic. They can convey profundity of thought, richness of emotion, and insight into character. They take us beyond our limited experience of life to show us the lives of other people at other times. They stir us intellectually and emotionally, and deepen our understanding of our history, our society, and our own individual lives. In great writing from the past we find the England of our ancestors, and we not only see the country and the people as they were, but we also soak up the climate of the times through the language itself, its vocabulary, grammar, and tone. We would only have to consider the writing of, Boswell, and
side by side to see how the way writers use language embodies the cultural atmosphere of their time. Literature can also give us glimpses of much earlier ages. Glimpses of Celtic Ireland in the poetry of, or of the Romans in Shakespeares plays, for example, can take us in our imaginations back to the roots of our culture, and the sense of continuity and change we get from surveying our history enhances our understanding of our modern world. Literature can enrich our experience in other ways too. London, for example, is all the more interesting a city when behind what we see today we see the London known to Dickens, Boswell and Johnson, or Shakespeare. And our feeling for nature can be deepened when a landscape calls to mind images from, say, Wordsworth, or Ted Hughes. The world of English literature consists, apart from anything else, of an astonishing array of characters, from the noble to the despicable - representations of people from all walks of life engaged in all kinds of activities. Through their characters great authors convey their insights into human nature, and we might find that we can better understand people we know if we recognise in them characteristics we have encountered in literature.


Perhaps we see that a certain man's behaviour resembles that of in Antony and Cleopatra, or a certain woman is rather like The Wife of Bath in 's Canterbury Tales. Seeing such similarities can help us to understand and accept other people. Good works of literature are not museum pieces, preserved and studied only for historical interest. They last because they remain fresh, transcending as well as embodying the era in which they were written. Each reader reading each work is a new and unique event and the works speak to us now, telling us truths about human life which are relevant to all times. Whether we choose to study it or read it for pleasure, when we look back over our literature we are looking back over incredible richness. Not just museum pieces, but living works which we can buy in bookshops, borrow from the library, or download from the internet and read today, right now. When introducing literature to a new class I ask two questions: "Why do we study it and what can we learn from it? " Now, if you're a teacher you'll know that it's not always a smooth ride to the final destination, which is all part of the fun, but the answer we usually get to, albeit with teacher sat-nav switched on, is that through literature, we can visit cultures impossible for us to experience ourselves. From our reading, we can begin to understand what it must have been like to live in a particular time, under certain conditions, in different parts of the world. But the best bit is that we can do all this while honing those oh-so-necessary and desired critical-thinking skills. And that's the point: that the study of literature in the contemporary classroom is, perhaps, even more relevant today than it has ever been.


So, back in September when the, it's not unimaginable that English teachers stood poised, quills aloft, ready to defend the body of work that has shaped the modern world, to the death. Well, to the staffroom and the discussion forums at least. One of the reasons cited for this usurping of a great British classic, in favour of a younger model, was that students just couldn't engage with the subject matter. Are they even called cream crackers these days? At a time when the common aim of those in education, certainly the majority of us, is to prepare pupils for a world that evolves at the speed of fibre-optics, the role of literature and its importance in equipping our pupils for the future has never been more apt. But just what are the benefits to teaching literature to the young 'uns these days? From the linguistic perspective, studying classic literature from the Western canon (Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell and so on) affords students of English the opportunity to understand, analyse and evaluate language quite different from their own. Structures, trends in punctuation and in the way we speak have evolved through the ages and being aware of these developments really helps us to understand better, language in its current context. If we didn't read and study texts from the past, and only looked to the best seller list, how would we know of this evolution? In my experience, pupils' creativity runs rampant when they can remix particular structures and styles with their own writing to lend authenticity to character, story and setting. One of the challenges teachers face is the need to edge learners beyond their comfort zones but in doing so, we challenge their thinking and we bolster their confidence to become even more skilled in the use of their own language. Or as the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) might say,. There are more benefits to the study of literature. Understanding a story through the experiences of a character enables us to feel what it could have been like and helps us consider the impact of events, significant or otherwise, on ordinary people.


Gaining a broad view of society, through the eyes of another, fosters understanding, tolerance and empathy and the value of these capacities cannot be underestimated in today's world. Understanding the past does, we hope, prevent us from repeating the mistakes of our predecessors but, more than that, it helps us appreciate how attitudes have changed over time. This, in turn, promotes a deeper understanding of why we are who we are today. While we must safeguard the teaching of classic literature or risk depriving our young people of the wealth of knowledge, enjoyment and sense of heritage and history to be gained from our classics, we should also be open to the idea that more contemporary texts, of varying titles and formats, have a justifiable place in the curriculum too. Any text, if taught well, will engage on some level or another. A few years ago I received a thank you card from a student at the end of her school career but it didn't convey the usual gratitude for helping her complete the course, or for getting her through the exam. It simply read: "Thank you for introducing me to beautiful literature в I have learned so much from it. " And that golden moment is enough to convince me that great literature, from any time, is something that all our young people should be entitled to. That's the point. Sally Law is the principal teacher of English at Marr College in Troon, Scotland, and is a member of the Guardian Teacher Network adviser panel. View Sally's resource on the. This content is brought to you by. Sign up to the to get access to more than 100,000 pages of teaching resources and join our growing community. Looking for your next role? See our site for thousands of the latest teaching, leadership and support jobs

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