Teaching Literature in a Global Age

The 21st century is best encapsulated by the tensions between globalisation and nationalism. On one hand, our century has witnessed the intensification of globalisation characterised by transnational interconnectedness. Yet, as the world becomes closer and flatter, it is also pulled apart by governments and various communities who revert to nationalistic, protectionist and isolationist policies and practices that encourage the erection of literal and symbolic walls between countries and communities.

For a long time, Literature classrooms have been disconnected from such tensions occurring in the socio-political sphere.

In the typical Literature classroom in mainstream schools, students are immersed in analysing the plot, character, setting, mood and atmosphere, and themes in a text. What is needed, more than ever today, is to re-envision Literature education in ways more responsive to our globalised times. I propose a radical shift in the ways we think about our philosophy of teaching, pedagogical approaches, and text selection.

1) Philosophy – Ethics as First Philosophy

At the philosophical level, Literature education should not be positioned as a subject that merely trains students to be critical readers of texts and language. As the philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1984) had argued, language operates not merely as a means for communicating meaning but also as a means for reaching understanding of others. Such a view had been echoed by Jean-Paul Sartre (1988) who remarked that “although literature is one thing and morality a quite different one, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative” (p. 67). This moral imperative compels the act of writing, itself a form of ethical action that Sartre links to one’s articulation of freedom from oppression. To teach the critical reading of texts with attention only to its aesthetic properties discounts the ethical impulse of authors and ignores ethical complexity inherent in narratives that allow us to confront values of others in the world including our own.

Some may fear that the prioritization of ethics in Literature education may lead to indoctrination.

However, such a view conflates ethical education with state sanctioned moral education. While the latter deals with normative principles of right or wrong, often determined by the state, the former involves interrogating moral principles; in this way, it is dialogic, contested, and open-ended. I propose then that aesthetics be perceived as a means to ethics as an end and a philosophy of Literature education could then be encapsulated as follows: To empower students to engage and empathize, through literary aesthetics and texts, with multiple and marginalised others in the world.

2) Pedagogy – Applying Ethical and Aesthetic criticism

At the pedagogical level, aesthetic criticism can be complemented by ethical criticism. Aside from appreciating the literary aesthetics of texts, teachers can tap on the text’s ethical potential. Literary texts, in providing insights into the lived experiences of others, inherently invite ethical contemplation. Such contemplation can be facilitated as teachers encourage students to make connections in four areas:

  1. Connections to texts: Compare the issues and concerns in this text to other literary and informational /functional texts. For example, compare and contrast the ways in which text A and B examine the issue concerned. How do non-literary texts contextualise the issues in the text?
  2. Connections to society: How do the concerns in the text connect with similar concerns in your own community or country?
  3. Connections to world: Discuss how a key issue in the text is also a cause of global concern or how it may be linked to the challenges caused by globalisation. Who or what group is marginalised or discriminated against? Connect this to articles that can provide a historical context to understanding this marginalised group.
  4. Connections to theory: Connect the issues and concerns in the text to abstract ideas or philosophy about human nature, human dignity, justice and culture (race, gender, politics).

By encouraging such connections, students are pushed to connect their aesthetic reading of texts to real-world values and injustices in their society and the world. The literary text is then no longer perceived as an enclosed artifact but an entry point to understanding ethical realities. Further, the invitation to make ethical judgments on characters and value systems in texts means that students should not only be equipped with the skills of aesthetic analysis but also with some understanding of ethical philosophy as well. As George Hillocks (2014) observes, high school Literature teachers focus on empowering students to appreciate the formal properties of the text but do not explicitly equip them to handle its ethical, philosophical concepts with the result that students cannot convincingly substantiate their judgments of characters or issues.

3) Text Selection – Encouraging Comparisons and Explorations of Global Issues

Finally, in relation to text selection, teachers can consider applying two key principles. The first is to move beyond the singular study of texts toward comparative and interrupted readings. Every text is constructed and conveys the viewpoint of an author situated in a specific culture. Teachers should then encourage students to compare the text studied with another text related to a similar theme. This text should preferably be from a different culture (and may include translated texts) and should offer a different viewpoint. In this way, students are encouraged to expand their perspective of the issue concerned.

Second, teachers should consider selecting texts that have greater relevance to global issues facing our world today. This was the impetus informing the collection of stories I edited, which was partly funded by the Singapore Teachers Union, titled Crossworlds: Short Stories on Global Themes (published by Marshall Cavendish in 2015). The stories are written by contemporary award-winning authors from around the world. More importantly, each story centers on a key global issue.

For example, through Chimamanda Adichie’s story “The American Embassy”, students can explore mass media stereotypes of asylum seekers and consider how the author attempts to disrupt this. Through Margaret Atwood’s story “Dancing Girls”, Students can compare the various ways foreigners are treated and connect this to the different ways countries attempt to assimilate or integrate them. Through Ha Jin’s story “After cowboy chicken comes to town,” which revolves around the setting up of an American fast food restaurant in China, students can discuss how socialist business practices differ from capitalist practices. They can further investigate the ways multinational corporations affect local cultures in positive and negative ways.

The suggestions provided in this article are by no means exhaustive. They are intended to provoke thought about how, in an increasingly globalised landscape, Literature education can develop future citizens with cosmopolitan dispositions of empathy and critical capacities to engage with diverse and conflicting cultural values in our world today.


Further reading

Choo, S. S. (2016). Fostering the hospitable imagination through cosmopolitan pedagogies: Re-envisioning literature education in Singapore. Research in the Teaching of English, 50(4), 400-421.

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action Vol. 1: Reason and the rationalization of society. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Hillocks, G. (2016). The territory of literature. English Education, 48(2), 109–126.
Sartre, J-P. (1988). What is literature and other essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Suzanne Choo is a Assistant Professor at the English Language and Literature Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University

Email: suzanne.choo@nie.edu.sg