Is literature most effective in its attempt to teach or in its attempt to entertain?

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lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a teacher of literature, I believe that literature is most effective in its attempt to teach. My students learn so much about life through the literature we read. When my students are feeling sorry for themselves or when my students complain about having to pick up a pencil, I introduce them to Christy Brown's autobiography My Left Foot. In Christy Brown's autobiography, he shares the story of living his life as an individual who could not communicate with his family. He was born with cerebral palsy and had a severe disability. Eventually, he learns to write with his left foot--the only part of his body he could control. With his left foot, he writes his autobiography. When reading Brown's autobiography, the students learn to appreciate the fact that they have been born capable of freely communicating.

There is no better way to teach students to appreciate their health than by reading Brown's story of how he was born with cerebral palsy. Born in Ireland, Christy Brown overcame his cerebral palsy disability and became a writer and painter. He was able to write or type only with the toes of one foot. Also, Christy Brown's autobiography was later made into an Academy Award-winning film.  

While Christy Brown's life story was amazing and entertaining, it is actually a story that teaches a very important lesson in life. The reader learns to appreciate being born healthy and with the capabilities of communicating effectively. Also, the reader learns that any obstacle or physical disability can be overcome with love and determination. Christy Brown's mother would never give up on her son. Even though doctors and some family members encouraged her to put Christy into an institution, she would not. She believed her son was capable of intellectual communication:

Though Brown is born with severe cerebral palsy, unable to communicate or control his movements, his mother believes that his mind is unaffected. Her confidence in Brown's growing abilities never falters as her son grows up and becomes increasingly aware of his physical disabilities.

Truly, Brown's story is intriguing and entertaining, but that is not Brown's ultimate purpose for writing his life story. He desired to teach his readers a lesson about love and life while overcoming a physical disability. Brown's story was and is an effective teaching tool. Even my students who are least interested in reading literature become captivated with Brown's story. They learn so much about life and overcoming difficulties.

Brown is an inspiration. He shares how he became frustrated with his disability. He shares how he wanted to die:

His resentment grows to very nearly suicidal levels. It is through learning to communicate via paintingwriting and increasingly fluent speech that Brown achieves some measure of peace.

When Brown was a teenager, he became so depressed. 

As a teenager, Brown felt the frustration and depression that is common among many adolescents, though usually for far less cause.

When my teenage students read this story of triumph, they learn to overcome their own depression and difficulties that life brings. Brown's story teaches students to stop complaining about difficulties:  

It will inspire in most readers slinking embarrassment at their own personal grumpiness.

When Brown finds peace through his ability to communicate by using his left foot, my students rejoice with him. They learn from this amazing autobiography. 

handbooktoliterature eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Think of the traditions of both entertainment and education--they both have roots in the narrative tradition. The first great stories of human experience were passed on through oral traditions, and they were able to be changed to fit each tribe, village, culture or society. These arechetypal stories have lasted so long because they resonante with people and the general human experience, but they also teach the listeners cultural values, local significance, and day to day lessons. 

Early nonformal education was based on this same ability to connect with students through vivid stories and examples, just as it is today. Teachers need to find the narrative that fits in context with his or her students in order to pass on information. Otherwise, students could simply learn everything from charts and lists of facts and instructions, but it has been shown time and time again that a facilitator is needed to help connect the knowledge to application through stories and examples.