How to Talk in the Classroom about Politically Incorrect Literary Masterpieces?

Submitted by: Anna Janus-Sitarz
Abstract: The changes to the National Curriculum, implemented in Poland in 2017, afresh provoked the debate on the status of literature in schools as part of a grand national narrative (Goodwyn, 2012). The list of old literary works to be read obligatory by students as the ‘cultural heritage’ gives no place for Polish teachers to choose all kinds of literature, from many cultures. Furthermore, the new school reading canon underlines the role of books that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and omits the new literature which presents different perspectives on migration or the acceptance of otherness.
The crucial question for the Polish researchers is: Should the works of Nobel laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz and other outstanding writers, presenting racism or antisemitism, be still read in schools, especially during the rise of nationalist rhetoric? The main challenge for the L1 teachers is: How to talk in the classroom about politically incorrect masterpieces?
Trying to answer these questions I will refer to the works of Rorty (2000) or Booth (1988) who have already described the problem of educational responsibility for introducing works evoking moral doubts. I will discuss the opportunities of implementing some of their conclusions in teaching and teacher education. Based on the analysis of instructions regarding Sienkiewicz in eight most commonly used primary and secondary -level textbooks and the scenarios prepared by two groups of pre-service teachers I will present the possibilities and doubts related to the introduction of controversial works to the school curriculum.
The results show that most text-books underline contribution of Sienkiewicz to cultural heritage and offer a wide range of activities around his books. However they ignore such controversial aspects of novels as intolerance to a different religion or national diversity. I will also present the essential differences between the projects of the group of students who prepared their scenarios on Sienkiewicz after discussing the contemporary literature with a small immigrant as a hero and the second group that did projects without such introduction. It turns out that the earlier reading of literature developing empathy has an impact on the understanding of the need for critical reading of politically incorrect masterpieces.

Goodwyn A., (2012) The Status of Literature: English Teaching and the Condition of Literature Teaching in Schools, in English in Education 46(3). 
Booth W.C., (1988) The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction, Berkeley.
Rorty R., (2002) Philosophy and Social Hope, Penguin, New York.

Literature teaching, literary reading, National curriculum