Dilema Veche: The Benefits of Universal Literature


– pragmatic arguments

At the 2006 PISA test (which examined the exact science competencies of OECD high school students), nearly half the Romanian students could not surpass level 1 (out of 6). This means they “often mistake science facts and mix in personal beliefs with facts when they are asked for arguments in support of their decisions” or are not able to understand the main ideas in a text. On the other hand, a potential popularity chart among high school students would reveal surprising results: Romanian students lack hallmarks for value and evaluation criteria.

With these findings as his departure point, Cristian Hatu compiled for the Romanian Academic Society a study about the importance of teaching universal literature in Romanian schools. The research is based on concrete facts regarding current school curricula, the recommendations of certain specialists (Mircea Flonta, Liviu Papadima, I. Pârvu, Zoe Petre, Al. Zotta) and the comparison with school curricula in several Eastern European countries. The conclusion: (around) one third of the texts taught in Romanian language and literature classes ought to belong to universal literature. Here are the report’s arguments in brief.

1. Beyond cultivating the Romanian language with the aid of Romanian literary texts – the main argument in the exclusive selection of Romanian literature texts for school textbooks – studying language and literature at school ought to also lead to the understanding and debate of certain ideas, the familiarization with the evolution of thinking and the values of humanity. Literature shapes attitudes and behaviors. Beyond its formative role, universal literature provides solutions and suggestions for the problems of various communities and societies that have encountered similar experiences.

2. Starting with the 19th century, numerous Romanian writers studied abroad (especially in France and Germany). Their work was shaped by Western literary currents and authors. However, there are also major authors who did not have a direct influence on Romanian authors (Dante, Shakespeare or Cervantes). Conversely, a large part of text books are structured according to a presentation of literary genres and trends, with the works of certain authors standing in as illustrations. When Humanism, Illuminism, Realism or Symbolism are presented the universal literature examples provided by textbooks are too few, and, in any event, there is no comparative perspective. The idea of synchronizing Romanian literature with that of the Western world can be found in the work of writers grouped around the Dacia literara movement, in the attitude of the Junimea thinkers and T. Maiorescu and especially in E. Lovinescu’s modernism.

However, even during the totalitarian regime, following the slight relaxation of the 1970s, the models of Western literature influenced some of our local writers. Romanian literature took over, often times with lots of pathos, the literary models of the absurd, of the new French novel, of the mythical novel, of South American magical realism, as well as the critical perspectives of promoting literary values – structuralism, psychoanalysis, textualism, etc.. In fact, the cultural level of a community is evaluated not only via its cultural output, but also its capacity to be receptive to the products of other cultures.

3. If studying local literature contributes (together with history and religion) to shaping the sentiment of national identity, introducing certain universal literature masterpieces into school textbooks would be the equivalent of having “less of a national consciousness” – purists might argue. But patriotism is not the same as a provincial attitude (an item is only valuable if it’s the product of that given nation). That is the equivalent of saying that, by being foreign, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoi or Thomas Mann are invaluable. Or, these authors’ works grant us access to very powerful values. History is also important in shaping national identity, but these classes also include universal history: this is the preferred method, precisely for garnering an understanding of the context in which events in Romanian history took place. Pushing the envelope a little to see the absurd nature of this approach, it would entail to stop studying Galilei’s, Newton’s, Lorentz’s, Boltzmann’s, Planck’s or Heisenberg’s theories in Physics, and instead only be taught what Ţiţeica or Hulubei wrote; or in math to only learn about Moisil’s, Onicescu’s or Barbilian’s contributions and nothing about what Euclid, Euler, Cauchy, d’Alembert or Lagrange discovered…

4. There is a paradox here: we so wanted to be “integrated” into Europe, but we don’t care much about European culture. One of the arguments in favor of adhering was that “we are a European people.” But the argument was contextual; we only cared about the immediate and palpable advantages of the EU membership (European funding, freedom of circulation, etc.), and not by the fact that this adhesion entails observing a system of values (not just cultural, but also ethical). Several million Romanians are living in the Western world who didn’t learn much in school about the literature / culture of those respective countries. There are also former students, not too many, it’s true, who had the opportunity to come into contact with one of the major texts of universal literature (thanks to their families, friends or one of their teachers). The fact that Romanian literature during the totalitarian period assumed Western literary models also influenced readers of literature. That’s how one can explain, for instance, the early morning queues during that era for purchasing the valuable books that were being printed. If we were to be honest, we couldn’t but ask ourselves: aren’t those who keep reading literature once they’ve graduated the school the same ones who came into contact with the texts of certain foreign authors while in school?

5. The type of autism mentioned above cannot be found in other European countries. The analyzed countries offer both national literature, as well as universal literature in their school courses, including countries such as Great Britain and France. Moreover, the countries in our area (Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece or Hungary) also verify one’s knowledge in matters of universal literature at graduation, and their proportion goes from 10% of the total number of texts (Greece) to 34% (the Czech Republic).

6. A conversation such as the one at hand can seem a trifle in comparison to the serious themes that take up the front pages of newspapers: such as major corruption, the degradation of public space, the economic crisis. But things stand that way only at first sight. Without a schooling system that will credibly propagate values, we will not overcome the situation we keep complaining about in ten or twenty years. Regarding the first one of those problems, there are counties in which voters make no matter out of the fact that the politicians prove to be highly corrupted or completely lacking in morality. At the same time, there are plenty of voters who haven’t got the slightest problem in accepting electoral bribery. What do dignity, correctness or honor mean for all these people? The National Anti-Corruption Department or a fair justice system are very useful, but not sufficient; they treat a symptom of the disease but don’t cure it. Without mechanisms to internalize these values, “anti-corruption measures” will resemble the Danae’s efforts to fill a barrel by carrying broken vessels.

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