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In traditional literature programs students focus on decoding the mechanics of texts: plot, characterization, and themes. These texts tend to include a balance of contemporary and “classic” literature. When studying a past work, students investigate its historical context -- but only insofar as this adds understanding to the work itself. Past works are therefore studied “on their own terms”, and not merely as historical artifacts to be deconstructed: traditional literature programs are firmly rooted in the humanities, and carry the belief that great literature can reveal fundamental and universal truths about the human condition. These programs emphasize class discussions and critical essay writing, and aim to develop in students critical thinking, communication skills, and a cultivated taste and ethos.
In social justice- inspired programs, literature is not viewed as something to be merely decoded and “appreciated”: rather, it is viewed as a catalyst to social action. Choice of texts tends to favour contemporary works. If a classical text is used, it’s often in the context of social deconstruction: students are asked to critically examine possible prejudices and historical narratives inherent in the work. Like in traditional literature programs, students are often asked to engage in class discussion and critical essay writing, but more time might also be devoted to cooperative group projects and personal reflections. The goal is to teach students to think critically about what they read, while becoming intellectually and physically engaged in the social issues pertaining to their wider community.
These literature programs draw in equal measure from “Traditional” and “Social Justice” programs.