I put aside the book I´m currently reading to return to thoughts on literature and TOK. I´m enjoying the book immensely, largely because it takes me to a part of the world that I don´t know and absorbs me into lives utterly unlike my own, with their unfamiliar worldviews, values, and concerns. It´s What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin, and as I close it I return from the Punjab in my mind to the chair where I sit. I feel as if I know more from having entered imaginatively a work that extends my own understanding of human beings experiencing their own lives in the world. In this way, literature offers splendidly a quality that we value in TOK – perspectives – even though in the two courses we end up considering perspectives rather differently.
Literature, as we note in both literature class and TOK, uses a method of engagement through the particular and the subjective. In most literature, we respond to particular characters with names, places, and life circumstances. In literature that does not use characters and narrative, such as much poetry, we are still engaged through the specific details and the individual vision of the speaker or author. In literature, the particular roots the general; the writer´s view of life, however dispassionately or realistically observed and documented, is carried by the choices of character, setting, themes, and language within an individual work. These choices are subjective (though ¨naturalists¨attempt a ¨scientific objectivity¨), reflecting the writer´s own experiences and views, just as the experience of reading is subjective as the reader enters the imaginative world created and responds in a personal way. In the writing and reading of literature, personal perspectives are very much in play.
Literature class and TOK class both make a point of recognizing personal perspectives, though at quite different levels of generality. Within literature, first, we find perspectives giving shape to observations and ideas on several different levels of generality:
1. Within a particular work of literature, a writer may create differing perspectives in interaction to develop character psychology, social setting, and ideas. In a literature class, we encourage students not simply to describe what different characters think, but to notice and assess the methods used to create the viewpoints, the ways in which they are handled, and the overall vision that the author endorses and uses the interplay of perspectives to convey. We are, after all, introducing students to the writer´s craft, and literature as an art, shaping the raw material of life to create form and significance. (Questions asked in a literature class include any of the following: What are the effects achieved by the author´s handling of first and/or third person, and level of so-called ömniscience¨? Does the author choose first person point of view or third person, and with what effect? How are the different character viewpoints used in the work – for complementary understanding, for conflict, for setting up a debate on issues, for exposure of false and dangerous notions? To what extent are perspectives established by authorial commentary or handling of language? To what extent are we are convinced of the credibility or value of different viewpoints, and why?)
2. At a higher level of generality, the body of an author´s work reveals perspectives over more than one work (sometimes many) and over time. An author may frequently revisit similar preoccupations and concerns, with shifting attitudes or developing maturity, or may experiment further with form and style. The perspective of a maturing writer is unlikely to be static, and a reading of multiple works by the same author gives a greater understanding of the ideas treated and a heightened awareness of the craft used to treat them.
3. At a further level of generality, we can see that groups of authors can be clustered so that, in the reading, we gain various perspectives with significant common elements, such that our understanding is deepened of particular features of the human experience and ways of treating it in literature. The grouping may be based on historical period, as with European Romantic writers, or historical event, as with the British poets of the first world war. It may be based on genre, such as writers of tragedy (ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Racine, Miller), magic realism (Marquez, Allende, Rushdie, Morrison), or dystopias (Orwell, Huxley, Atwood). In the IB treatment of literature, the invitation is clear to consider authors for their cultural perspectives: a component of world literature is included in the course, presumably because what is lost in translation is more than compensated for in the gain in understanding of other cultures or ways of life, with the accompanying questions regarding the balance between the local and the universal. In a worldwide language such as English, the course also breaks established canons to include works in the language from a range of regions of the world and cultural backgrounds.
4. At a yet higher level of generality, we can consider literature itself from the perspective of various critical theories on how we should read and value literature. In the IB literature course, the choice to treat works as cultural documents (world lit) or as text to be analyzed out of context for examination of how language creates meaning (the commentary) reflects different critical orientations toward literature.
By now, it might be apparent that in referring to ¨perspectives¨ I am referring to viewpoints across a range of credibility, depth, and illumination. They do not all contribute equally to our understanding, nor do we take all of them equally seriously: an author may introduce a perspective within a literary work precisely to expose it as limited or entirely wrong-headed. As for the perspectives of authors themselves, we do not as critical readers value them all equally. We are looking, in literature, for some kind of contribution to our understanding. It matters whether an author uses stereotypes, sentimental simplifications, or, rather, acutely observed rendering of human psychology and social dynamics. It matters whether the interplay of ideas within a world genuinely gives us understanding or even insight into the way people act and the way people are. Indeed, part of our critical judgment on the quality of a literary work depends on the accuracy, insight, depth, breadth and wisdom of the perspective the writer gives us. Shakespeare lives on, it is widely argued, because his writing abundantly possesses these qualities.
In literature, we are not seeking a universal, logical system as in mathematics, nor are we trying to bring individual observations and interpretations into a universally applicable generalization as in the natural sciences. We are dealing with fiction, and we are not just accepting but valuing the existence of particularity and diverse perspectives, illuminating from various viewpoints something about the human experience. Yet the knowledge we seek from literature depends, like that in the sciences, on keen observation and recognition of patterns. The subjectivity of a literary author´s perspective, embracing all the influences of emotions and worldviews, involves the writer making sense of those observations, and then making sense of them for us. We value writers, in large part, for the extent to which they do so.
How does the TOK treatment of perspectives, then, compare with the literary one? Certainly, there are points in common, perhaps primarily a recognition of the inevitability of subjectivity in our accounts of the world and an appreciation of those areas of knowledge that use subjectivity to contribute to our understanding of ourselves in the world. Yet, in treating literature, TOK recedes from the particulars to a yet higher level of generality, seeing literature from the outside — or, if you prefer, from above — to ask about its characteristics as an area of knowledge. It then places it in context, comparatively, with other areas of knowledge.
All TOK questions, in this manner, deal with knowledge. ¨How does the world look from the perspective of literature?¨modulates into a somewhat different question: ¨How does literature give us knowledge of the world (as compared with how the sciences or history might do so)?¨ At this high level of generality, surveying all knowledge broadly, the perspectives that dominate are those taken on knowledge issues, questions regarding the nature of knowledge itself, its process of creation and validation, its means of renewal, its limitations and uncertainties, and so forth. Literature contributes to a full consideration of any number of such questions, as, for example:
In what ways do different areas of knowledge deal with the relationship between generalizations and particular examples?
Is subjectivity in knowledge a quality to be valued or a problem to be overcome?
What is the role of contradiction in different areas of knowledge, such as mathematics, the sciences, and the arts?
Is knowledge communicated exclusively by explicit, testable statements?
In what ways do areas of knowledge differ in their use of observation and interpretation?
Finally, in both literature and TOK courses, the perspective that matters in the end is the one taken by the student, assimilating the ideas we stir up through the subject matter of our courses and class involvement in discussing and considering ideas. In both courses, we expect our students not to regurgitate notes but to demonstrate their thinking skills in the form of analysis appropriate to our own subjects. In response to the questions we pose, we expect them to build and support their own arguments, grounding an interpretation in a broad understanding of the course material and well chosen supporting examples to clarify and illustrate their points. We look, further, for indications of their growing personal understanding, their own reflections and manner of drawing connections and comparisons, and, we hope, their own insight. Experiencing perspectives in interplay throughout our courses, they will ideally have learned how to formulate and articulate their own.
PS For more on perspectives within and upon areas of knowledge, see the knowledge creation diagram and its various treatments within the IB course companion. My co-authors and I tried to set up a framework that facilitates cross-disciplinary comparisons. http://www.oup.com/oxed/international/ibdiploma/knowledge/ PPS As I read over what I´ve just written here, I´m soooooo very aware of all that I´ve left out or left underdeveloped. Certainly, I ought to return to literature at some point during this holiday (especially if it starts to rain again) to treat those aesthetic aspects of literature – form, use of language — that I´ve glossed over in these postings. In any case, if you want to toss in more ideas on TOK and literature, I´d be awfully glad of some comments.
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