June 9, 2023
Should English Literature be replaced by Global Literature in schools?
The world is no longer at our doorstep but has become interwoven into our everyday lives.
In our increasingly diverse and globalized society, the Western canon seems not only restrictive but also exclusionary, calling into question whether the subject of English Literature should be replaced by Global Literature to best reflect the status quo at hand.
As it is instinctive that we construct narratives to create the lens through which we share the meaning of our lives, literature undoubtedly plays an integral part in modifying our perception of the world by acting as an extension and enrichment of experience.1
The currently taught curriculum seemingly robs students of a wider world of work that goes beyond rigid and archaic categories of what is deemed “good” and “worthwhile” literature. By enabling readers to live vicariously in a global culture, it allows students to gain intellectual complexity in their perspectives of the world, while acting as a crucial stepping stone to critically consider and reflect on multiple beliefs, values and issues.2
Global Literature would support the next generation’s intercultural understanding by encouraging knowledge of different cultures and history. Alongside the vast variations of writing styles that explore countless more themes to learn and appreciate.
On a practical level, one of the first obstacles teachers face incorporating Global Literature is accessing quality translations.
According to goodreads only 4% of children’s books in the United States and England are translated from other languages. While translations from English into non-English languages continue to outpace translations into English.
In addition, the emphasis on circulation disproportionately disadvantaged communities that already have limited resources. India, for example, has a vast literature of classical texts, one that is many times the size of the Greek and Roman legacy, but a large majority of ancient Indian works exist solely in manuscripts that are decaying faster than they can be catalogued.3
Not only is there a lack of opportunity to read a large range of international literature, studying already well-translated texts would still reflect the impracticality of creating a truly diverse, representative and functional curriculum for teaching Global Literatures. Seeing that it is impossible to truly capture the nuances of language and the implicit patterns of culture, this undermines the subject’s purpose as a way to promote a more multifaceted worldview.
Narrow definitions of what counts as literature pose yet another complication to truly understanding and learning about Global Literature. Nigerian author and literary theorist wa Thiong‘o pointed out that strict, Western ideas of literature contribute to the lack of respect and casual disregard for the cultural productions of non-Western cultures, which are sometimes transmitted orally.
The Challenges of Reading Across Nations
by Peter Lang
Western literary tradition, and by extension, the creation of a set curriculum to teach Global Literature, would systematically exclude and engage in the erasure of valuable cultural practices, including folklore and oral tradition
The large scope of international literature, underlying ambiguity surrounding the subject as well as many practical barriers highlight how it would not only be a subject virtually impossible for educators and students to fully grasp and understand, but also incredibly redundant in its inability to progress our understanding of the world.
Globalization of the English curriculum would only leave students with reductive and superficial understandings of other cultures. When readers see a person or event as one thing over and over again, they come to reduce the identity of that person to a mere monolith and that event to a mere commonplace narrative.
With both teachers and students accustomed to seeing their own lives, beliefs and experiences represented in texts, it is challenging, if not impossible, to completely overcome established stereotypes and to not position their own culture as the norm, even when the curriculum might strive to overcome bias.4
Stereotypes can reinforce hegemonic notions of Western power and privilege by alienating non-western peoples and placing them in a seemingly inferior position. Venturing outside well-known literary territory carries innumerable risks, where we not only simplify texts beyond recognition but engage in tokenism and thus fetishize reified cultures as embodiments of difference.5
Due to the inadvertent nature of these judgments, it is all the more difficult to evaluate when we are exoticizing characters, universalizing themes that may be culturally specific, or making unsubstantiated assertions in our unwillingness to acknowledge the lacunae in our worldview.
With students only at the threshold of deeper understandings of cultural identity and educators unable to build on responses to Global Literature framed by pre-existing judgment or derision, this may only create misconceptions, accentuate xenophobia, and reinforce prejudice.
Even in the best case scenario, where we are able to overcome any practical difficulties and pre-existing judgements, this still fails to resolve the field’s continuing biases, and in particular, its tendency to privilege literature that not only has been embraced by Western readers but also conforms to the pre-existing expectations and standards set by Western scholars.
Goethe’s World Literature Paradigm might have recognized that the Chinese were writing prolifically while “our ancestors were still living in the woods”; but he also grossly essentialized Chinese literature and furthermore warned that “looking for models, we must always return to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the beauty of humankind is constantly represented.”
For most of its history, the field of Global Literature has been associated with an established canon of primarily Western European classics and masterpieces. Western self-ratification is exemplified in the Modern Language Association’s series “Approaches to Teaching World Literature”, where of the 133 titles currently available, a mere 5 are from non-Western languages, with only an additional 5 from outside Europe and the United States.
Even works that have been translated into English have often been overlooked and disregarded as they do not conform to contemporary expectations.
One overlooked example is the Tibetan gLing Ge sar (གླིང་གེ་ སར་; Epic of King Gesar, lit. Gesar of gLing) dating at least from the twelfth century. Spanning Twenty-five times the size of the Iliad, it is often credited as the world’s longest epic tale. It has been translated into numerous Asian and European languages but has not been discussed as a piece of Global Literature. Gesar has been pushed aside because it goes against Western standards of what the corpus of Tibetan literature is or should be.6
Increasing attention to the enduring processes of cosmopolitanism, globalization, and transnationalism, together with growing frustration with the geographic, linguistic, and conceptual limitations of many fields of literature has understandably led to the burgeoning interest in the idea of Global Literature.
Yet it is crucial to understand that the manifold problems brought about by replacing the subject of English Literature with Global Literatures and the benefits of reading international novels are not mutually exclusive.
A holistic approach to the study and teaching of Global Literatures that fully reaches its objective as a force for genuine cultural understanding is practically impossible and will only lead to distortions in meaning that will set off a vicious cycle of perpetuating problematic stereotypes and creating unintentional tokenism.
Rather than replacing the subject of English Literature with a dilettantish attempt at creating superficial diversity, more efforts should be spent on holding discussions both of large-scale processes and of their specific inflections in particular settings to combine the global, the local and everything in-between.
Only through consistent collaboration can we mitigate issues surrounding Global Literatures, so that in the future it can play a larger part in allowing for deeper engagement with a broader range of texts, in providing much needed insights on problems worldwide, and in enabling us to understand the world that is no longer at our doorstep but has become interwoven into our everyday lives.