Lund University (SWEDEN)
About this paper:
Appears in: ICERI2011 Proceedings
Publication year: 2011
Pages: 5533-5542
ISBN: 978-84-615-3324-4
ISSN: 2340-1095
Conference name: 4th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation
Dates: 14-16 November, 2011
Location: Madrid, Spain
In this paper I will challenge the opinion, expressed for instance by French theorist Tzvetan Todorov, that literary theory should not be taught at upper secondary level (Todorov, La littérature en péril, Paris, Flammarion, 2007, page 33). According to Todorov, the teacher at this level should aim at teaching literary works, not theory. Theory should only be used as an invisible instrument. Todorov’s ideas are a criticism of how literature is taught in French upper secondary school, where theory, especially narratology, seems to come before literature in itself. This explains the decline in the pupils’ interest in literature, pretends Todorov (p. 31), since such a pedagogical approach neglects the pupils’ interest in and love for the object of their study (p. 25).

A closer look at the actual situation in France shows that things are not as simple as Todorov suggests. The French Education Ministry for instance does not impose a technical teaching of literature. On the contrary, the ministry even wants to avoid the use of too technical a narratological approach. Admittedly, a study of the textbooks used in French upper secondary school shows that the ministry’s advice is not really followed, since especially narratology is used extensively. But even in these cases, literary theory is used in an unreflected and ahistorical way, without reference to theorists and works, and without taking into consideration debates and developments in this field. Theory is thus rather used as a method for textual analysis, an instrument, something that reduces its critical potential (see Ulf Olsson, 2002, “Teorins delning. En kritik av den hermeneutiska gemenskapen”, Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap nr 4, p. 77-91).

The situation is completely different in Sweden, where literary theory and critical reading have been remarkably absent from the syllabuses for the subject Swedish in upper secondary school during the last 40 years (Magnus Persson, 2007, p. 87). The Swedish Education Ministry has preferred to base the teaching of literature on another pedagogical model, formed after Louise Rosenblatt’s reader-response theory. Such a model where the focus lies on the pupil’s reaction to the text rather than on the text and on the theories, is closer to what Todorov aims at. However, the results of this pedagogical form haven’t been positive, as it appears in the reports from the OECD programme for international student assessment, the so called PISA. Both literary skills and reading skills have been constantly deteriorating since the beginning of these studies.

My hypothesis is that literary theory can be used successfully at upper secondary level. I agree with Todorov that this must not be done in too mechanistic a manner, but a certain insight in theory can help the pupils become better readers. A possible way to do this is by using an inductive approach, that is starting with examples from literary works and get to the theory instead of the other way (see L-Å Skalin).

I tested my hypotheses on pupils of French, Spanish and film in upper secondary school, in some cases where I tried to make the theory, especially narratology, visible in a way that pays heed to its historical context and to the debates around it. The goal has been to provide a theoretical basis and a meta-language that could be useful for the pupils in the future.
Literary theory, narratology, critical reading.