The “Ultimate Purpose” of Literary Education

What are the purposes of literature instruction? Here’s an incomplete sampling of twentieth-century mission statements.

1. “The Letter to the Teacher” in Understanding Poetry (1938), by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, was addressed to college teachers, but the New Criticism they espoused became widely influential in secondary school pedagogy.

Letter to the Teacher

This book has been conceived on the assumption that if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are:

  1. Paraphrase of logical and narrative content.
  2. Study of biographical and historical materials.
  3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation.

Of course, paraphrase may be necessary as a preliminary step in the reading of a poem, and a study of the biographical and historical background may do much to clarify interpretation; but these things should be considered as means and not as ends. And though one may consider a poem as an instance of historical or ethical documentation, the poem itself, if literature is to be studied as literature, remains finally the object for study. Moreover, even if the interest is in the poem as a historical or ethical document, there is a prior consideration: one must grasp the poem as a literary construct before it can offer any real illumination as a document.

2. Published the same year, Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration (1938), written for the Progressive Education Association’s Commission on Human Relations, objected to the “purely esthetic” approach of the New Critics. Her book went through five editions through 1995, informing several generations of teachers.

Literature as Exploration Title PageMany teachers of literature feel themselves to be somehow outside the sphere of present-day intellectual ferment, in which the experts in the natural and social sciences seem so clearly to have a part. My aim in this book is to demonstrate that the study of literature can have a very real, and even central, relation to the points of growth in the social and cultural life of a democracy.

The enjoyment of literature remains as ever the source from which all its other values spring. If we are to help young people to come fully into their literary heritage, of which we are the trustees, we must cleave to this sense of literature as first of all a form of art. Yet one of the wonders of art is its multiplicity of powers: the literary work, even as it gives pleasure, may be fulfilling many other functions. Viewing literature in its relations to the diverse needs of human beings, this book will seek to answer the questions: “How can the experience and study of literature foster a sounder understanding of life and nourish the development of balanced, humane personalities?” “How can the teacher minister to the love of literature, initiate his students into its delights, and at the same time further these broader aims?”

The dangers to be avoided are, on the one hand, the tendency to treat literary works merely as sociological documents or moral tracts and, on the other hand, the “purely esthetic” point of view. This essay attempts to show that such extremism is untrue to the nature of the literary experience itself, in which artistic sensitivity and human understanding are interdependent and mutually necessary.”

3. Virginia Rothenbush’s 1949 article “Developing Active, Thinking Citizens,” published in English Journal, exemplifies the “life adjustment” phase of progressive education.

Consequently all the world is the field of the English teacher. Well-planned trips, movies, radio programs, books, individual reading and writing, conferences, group discussions, and planning are the means the English teacher uses in helping children to develop wholesomely as active, thinking citizens who can constructively face and solve the problems of today – and their problems in the world of tomorrow.

4-5. Program descriptions from Philadelphia in 1960 and northern California in 1961 express typically expansive views of the mission of the English teacher.

Screenshot, Philadelphia Public Schools The cultural tradition of American society includes an understanding and appreciation of great literature. Poetry, drama, oratory, fiction, biography, and the essay, selected according to the capacity of each student, stir the emotions of youth. Some of our loyalties and ideals, such as those of mutual understanding among social and ethnic groups, races and religions, appreciation of individual human worth; love of liberty; and the recognition of the family come out of the past; and some, from contemporary life.

Literature gives an interpretation of life. Literature provides a sense of values. Literature gives the personal, human touch – vicarious experience of all kinds of life in all parts of the globe at widely different periods of history. Literature reflects the life and thought of people. Since it helps children understand life, think of themselves, and appreciate moral values, it is vitally important in the educational process.

Screen shot - general description Literature, of all studies, uniquely provides for the student the panorama of all human experience and aspiration, made more readily assimilable by its fusion with emotion. It permits him to participate vicariously in every endeavor that has contributed to the development of the human tradition that moves, like a golden thread, through human history. It provides him with the principles underlying accepted human values, describes their inception and struggle for recognition and acceptance, illustrates the tragedy of their occasional abandonment, and confirms the continuous conviction of the necessity of their survival and permanence written indelibly in the record of man and his thought. If the educated man is in essence, as we believe, the humane man, then the knowledge of literature, the expression of man’s most intense concern with the human tradition, is basic to his development.

The infinite range of literature, its multiplicity of form and theme, its apparent divergence into numerous channels of national consciousness and individual idiosyncracy, often hide from the student the essential harmony and unity conferred by its quintessential concern, on all levels and in all ways, with humane values. The identification of this continuum of humane tradition, its importance to the development of man, and the necessity of its continuance if he is to survive with dignity and humanity… is the job of the teacher of literature.

6. At a “Spring Institute” at Santa Barbara in 1969, James Squire, former Executive Secretary of the NCTE, urged educators to adopt the so-called New English:

New English Title

The ultimate purpose of literary education in the secondary schools is to deepen and extend the responses of young people to literature of many kinds. There are other purposes, of course: to reinforce values and points of view (as in introducing black literature into the curriculum), to transmit important cultural information, to help young people to learn to apply critical terms or to understand certain critical theories. But these are adjunctive or secondary purposes. What is important is that we perceive literature as human experience – both the experience of the writer and the experience of the reader-and know that when it really works, it can have all the power and impact of life experience itself. The full study of literature involves concern with the work itself, concern with the writer of the work, and concern with the relationship between the reader and the work. The former are the province of the critic and the literary historian; the latter, of the teacher of literature. This is why response to literature rather than literature itself should be our major concern.


Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry : An Anthology for College Students. New York, H. Holt, 1938,
Curriculum Office. A Guide to the Teaching of Literature in Grades 7-12. Philadelphia Public Schools, 1960, Cubberley Education Library, Stanford University, HIstorical Curriculum Collection.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. Literature as Exploration. D. Appleton-Century Inc, 1938,
Rothenbush, Verona F. “Developing Active, Thinking Citizens.” The English Journal, vol. 32, no. 4, 1943, pp. 188–95, JSTOR.
Squire, James R. “Toward a Response-Oriented Curriculum in Literature.” New English, New Imperatives, edited by Henry B. Maloney, NCTE, 1971, pp. 89–98,
A General Description of the Literature Program. Tamalpais Union High School District, 1961, Cubberley Education Library, Stanford University, HIstorical Curriculum Collection.