The power of words: How Literature courses cultivate critical thinking skills

  • Dr. Ritam Dutta
  • Published 08/08/2023
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The power of words: How Literature courses cultivate critical thinking skills

It is often said that literature reflects or mirrors human life in general. The literary term for this, coming from ancient Greek, is mimesis, or mīmēsis, which means imitation or mimicry. For me, however, literature is not a mimicry of life; it is life as we know it. For example, a popular Bengali adage about the epic Mahabharata, one of the finest works of literature, goes like this: “jaha nei Bharat-e, taha nei Bharat-e,” which roughly translated means: “something that could not be found (mentioned) in (Maha)bharata, cannot be found in Bharat (India) — literature is that important in shaping our realities.

Not only do the stories that we read, hear, and share shape our identities and beliefs, but our identities and beliefs are essentially made of the stories that we tell ourselves and the world day in and day out. This is aptly captured in the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser, who once said, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Literature helps provide meaning to our chaotic existence and is, therefore, integral to human civilization. Literature provides us with a profound understanding of society and its many problems, in addition to making us receptive to different perspectives on the human condition and human nature, with all its follies and virtues.

Additionally, literature helps us develop critical thinking skills, which in turn leads us to appreciate the influence of culture, environment, biases, and beliefs on people’s perceptions of the world around them. In today’s VUCA world of rapid technological shifts and unanticipated problems, the ability to think critically is perhaps one’s best recourse in terms of preparedness and is also one of the most in-demand skills in businesses worldwide.

Mastering critical thinking skills not only impacts decision-making positively, but also enhances problem-solving abilities, encourages a creative and innovative outlook, and stimulates curiosity. Therefore, it’s crucial to develop intellectual prowess, but with a more humane outlook. As an ardent admirer of various genres of literature, I’ve experienced life in all its richness, vastness, and myriad challenges through great works of literature, and it has made me both more critical and empathetic as a person. This is how literature impacts the critical thinking skills of a reader or student:

Facilitate a deeper understanding of human nature: Because literature requires critical thinking, it provides the reader with a better grasp of the problem scenario and the people involved, even if they are fictional characters. It’s about understanding the home situation with regards to time, space, and the social setting: how a narrative is produced within a certain environment, the trials and tribulations of the characters, why they do certain things, their motives, and more. This also applies to real-life circumstances and scenarios.

Symbolism and allegory: These are critical tools in the literary arsenal for understanding human nature and the inferences that can be drawn from a character, situation, context, history, culture, or plot. It fires up the reader’s imagination, thereby broadening the scope for comprehending the evolution of the often multiple meanings and connotations of a literary text. For instance, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a political satire about a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer in a bid to create an equal, free, and happy society for themselves. However, it is more than just another beast fable about a bunch of rebel farm animals. This means the reader needs to dig beneath the surface to understand the deeper meanings and implications of the text, which can also help them make informed decisions in the real world.

Developing communication skills: From participating in conversations and debates to writing essays, expressing one’s thoughts and opinions is essential for studying literature and developing critical thinking skills. Students of literature, therefore, master the art of persuasion by presenting themselves confidently and eloquently, and over the course of time, these skills help them excel in their chosen professional fields.

Empathy and cultural understanding: On the surface, Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, seems simple enough: a complex brew of murder, witchcraft, and sinister conspiracy. However, the scene in which Lady Macbeth tries to wash blood off her hands after killing Duncan, having failed to goad her husband to do it so she could become the Queen of Scotland, reflects a deeper narrative on morality, ambition, and the social position of women in the Elizabethan era. Her guilt ultimately drives her to insanity and suicide in the play. She is shown as a traditional anti-mother character or an anti-society figure — a powerful and ambitious woman with a supernatural bent who must fall because she doesn’t fit into the stereotypical role of a woman in that culture. Similarly, King Lear and his daughter Cordelia, Shakespearean figures from another play, elicit sympathy and anguish in us.

Forming and supporting arguments: There are numerous and various interpretations of a piece of literature, therefore, while you are studying literature, you don’t only read; you also write. This improves analytical abilities and fosters the development of comprehension skills from many perspectives.

Understanding narrative biases: Critical thinking abilities may also be sparked by investigating and analysing the intentional or unintentional narrative biases of a text, or the role of an unreliable narrator in a story. In instances where an author’s intention in a text or an unreliable narrator’s motive in a story needs to be questioned while reading, the reader realises that because the narrator is not always omniscient and with good intention, and neither is the author, sometimes a narrative is required to be read against the text to understand its politics.

Navigating the complexity of narrative structures: This needs to be explored through the lens of cultural and historical context, as in the case of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, A Hundred Years of Solitude. The twists, turns, blindsiding of pitfalls, and eventual culmination of everything nurtured by the protagonist into nothingness require a deep and critical mindset to understand what is happening and why certain things happen the way they do in the story.

Magic Realism: This can be very complex to understand for readers who are more oriented towards realism. For example, to get the most out of much of Latin American literature, you need to have a certain “willing suspension of disbelief” and embrace the cultural and historical context of the writing. In a more contemporary context, Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, is a classic example of magical realism, where history, allegory, and the fantastic collide. This encourages students of literature to be more innovative and creative in their perspectives.

In conclusion, more than teaching us how to read the word, literature teaches us how to read the world. By offering us a profound understanding of the complexities of life, literature teaches us to develop a comprehensive and intellectual outlook on everything around us. From helping us to deal with complex, multi-faceted issues to enriching our emotional intelligence, from honing our creativity and imagination to developing a critical but empathetic mindset, literature is the very essence of life, and, therefore, studying literature is quite imperative.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, School for Life, and School of Liberal Studies, UPES)

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Dr. Ritam Dutta
Dr. Ritam Dutta

The writer is Ritam Dutta, Assistant Professor, School for Life, UPES School of Liberal Studies

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