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Literature That Gets Students Thinking About Ethics and Justice

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “The Need for Cosmopolitan Literacy in a Global Age: Implications for Teaching Literature” by Suzanne Choo in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, July/August 2018 (Vol. 62, #1, p. 7-12), Link; Choo can be reached at
“In today’s volatile climate, it is no longer sufficient for students to be passive appreciators of language,” says Suzanne Choo (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) in this Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy article. “Going forward, students should also be equipped to critically evaluate diverse values, explore ethical dilemmas, and engage with issues of global injustice. Literature provides a powerful gateway to such ethical encounters with lived experiences of individuals at various times and places around the world and offers insights into cultures that students may not necessarily have access to.”
Choo’s word for literature that accomplishes this is cosmopolitan, giving students the aesthetic, empathetic, and critical skills and dispositions they need to be citizens of a world that is networked and diverse. Cosmopolitan literature has these characteristics:
- Openness to differences, the opposite of intolerance;
- A disposition to break out of a self-centered view of others and the world;
- Embracing a hybrid identity that crosses national boundaries;
- Other-centered, focused on understanding and engaging with others;
- Actively seeking to connect with others.
In short, says Choo, cosmopolitan literature facilitates “critical ethical engagements with diverse cultures and values in our world.” She suggests three ways teachers can use such literature with students:
Evaluating characters’ values – Cosmopolitan literature “allows students to observe how characters grow and change in various contexts,” says Choo. “In the process, students are able to reflect on the process of character formation, including their own.” It’s also important for students to explore the historical background in which literary characters operated. For example, Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is lampooned for his puritan behavior, but why was puritanism seen negatively in Elizabethan society? Choo also suggests that teachers include a text that is ethically flawed and use it as a foil for discussion.
Exploring ethical dilemmas – Moral dilemmas are vividly brought to life in cosmopolitan literature, and classrooms are a safe space for students to ask questions about these complex, real-life problems. In Margaret Atwood’s short story, “Dancing Girls,” students can grapple with a situation where a person from the Middle East arrives in Canada and is the object of suspicion. High-quality literature raises questions about which characters are good or evil, who determines that, and the author’s stance.
Engaging with issues of justice – “One of the central tasks of educators,” says Choo, “is to push students toward higher stages of reasoning in which they increasingly have to adopt a more cosmopolitan, non-parochial perspective, considering questions about fairness and rights of minorities and other individuals whose values and circumstances may be different from their own.” For example, Orwell’s Animal Farm raises issues about how profits should be shared among various contributing members of society, and Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Elephant Vanishes” raises the question of caring for the elderly and others who can no longer contribute to society. “What principles of fairness should be applied then?” asks Choo. “What local and universal laws can ensure the just distribution of wealth and resources, as well as the fair provision of opportunities?”
Perspective-taking is powerfully raised in R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, with students challenged to explore the world of a boy with facial defects from the point of view of the boy, his sister, his friends, his sister’s boyfriend, and a boy who bullied him. Class discussions of cosmopolitan literature may also lead students to what Choo calls “informed activism” – getting involved in issues of justice within their classrooms, schools, and communities.

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