Ethical problems in the teaching of literature in public secondary schools
Tiews, Evelyn M.
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The purpose of this thesis is to consider the ethical difficulties faced by a teacher of English and American literature in secondary schools when the classes consist of pupils of widely divergent religious training and backgrounds. The problems at first would seem to be confined only to those schools where such religious disagreements make themselves felt strongly through the fact that a relatively large percent of Jewish pupils is to be found in an enrolment that is in general overwhelmingly Christian. Under such circumstances a teacher suddenly becomes aware of several elements of dissension: (1) how strongly pro-Christian much literature is; (2) how logical it is to have non-Christians feel that whatever is pro-Christian must automatically be anti-Semitic; and (3) how the presence of many devout members of Christianity and of Judaism together in the same class can raise harassing ethical problems that might never come to light in a class that was religiously homogeneous. In recent years the problem has attained national significance by being discussed in educational journals and in the general press. Improvement of public relations, attempts to attain mutual understanding through inter-faith groups, and conferences of leaders of Christians and Jews have gone far toward religious harmony. Still, frequent protests are heard that one group is usurping another's prerogatives, and the struggle goes on, daily becoming one of widening national concern to conscientious educators. The method of treatment here is to present the problem first in its broad ethical setting, showing how the study of professional codes of ethics influences the outlook and how moral issues, in general, apply to the problem of this thesis in particular. Next are presented the Christian assumptions that are to be found in literature, and later come the Jewish refutations of those assumptions. It is these refutations that cause the difficulties whenever Jewish pupils find themselves assigned to read their high-school literature. Each question that they ask poses a new ethical puzzle to the teacher. Sometimes he can solve it immediately; more often, not. Two of his great disadvantages are the swiftness of time and the need for an immediate reply. He realizes that adolescents will not--perhaps because they are so constituted that they cannot--suspend judgment. He sees the long view. He tries to make them see it, but it does not appeal to them because they live in the present. The future, from their point of view, is something to worry only older people. The next four chapters, (IV, V, VI, and VII), consider many examples from a typical secondary-school curriculum in literature. The material included for discussion by types consists of novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays, and a special text. Each is minutely scrutinized to present the individual problems as they occur in regular classroom recitations. No unnecessary duplications are included, and the writer has tried to be careful to avoid the kind of distortion that can come from quotations set down out of their proper contexts. Such novels are investigated as Ivanhoe, Men of Iron, Silas Marner, The Pearl, Start of the Trail, A Tale of Two Cities, and Mutiny on the Bounty. The short stories wherein problems occur are comparatively few, in fact, two only. Next come discussions of many poems. Poets, somehow, seem to offer more frequent cause for heated argument; consequently, there is a larger amount of poetry under discussion than of any other kind of literature. Plays are examined, too, among them being She Stoops to Conquer, The Rivals, Macbeth, and Hamlet. They offer fewer, but no less pointed, ethical dile1nmas for the teacher. Finally, essays come up for consideration, and in them, also, are to be found ethically painful lines. Sometimes one wonders whether all the lines that evoke classroom controversy are included in the material deliberately or unconsciously. It hardly seems that so many as are presented could have been deliberate; yet if the offenses are unconscious, some pupils consider them all the worse for the author's ingrained prejudices, which are thus proved so deep and so much a part of his very self that he is culpably not even aware of them. From consideration of all the literary excerpts presented as controversial in this thesis, one can draw five important conclusions: (1) There is much more material than one would casually suppose which can excite young people of diversified religious beliefs. (2) Every one of the controversial items poses an embarrassing ethical problem for the teacher who tries to be fair. (3) No one automatic formula for handling a problem is necessarily effective for another problem or even for handling the same problem a second time, human nature being what it is. (4) Perhaps a suggestion one can properly make is that every teacher of literature needs first to study ethics in general; then if it does not meet all his needs, he must evolve his own well-formulated principles which will serve as a guide. His personal ability to adapt them to each new situation as it confronts him will be the measure of his success in performing his teaching effectively, for he does not belong in the teaching profession if he does not recognize its potential opportunity to implant in young people a realization of worthwhile values of life. (5) Lastly, the teacher of literature must always remember, no matter what religious groups constitute the class, that pieces of literature are being studied as works of art, not as exemplifications of religious beliefs. The aesthetic and socio-cultural values, when presented and accepted as paramount, may pave a way to harmonious religious understanding.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University