The Territory of Literature - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

The Territory of Literature



What is the territory of literature? What does it include? What are its boundaries? What is important to its understanding?


George Hillocks Jr. asked these questions in an essay that was edited by Peter Smagorinsky for an English Education article. Hillocks went on to say:

First, high school curricula do not make it clear that, at the core, literature is concerned not only with character, plot, and setting but with moral and philosophical issues. [bold mine] That is never a consideration given any serious thought. It is blithely ignored.

What Hillocks states lies at the crux of why we love and teach literature and why good literature is so often challenged.

NCTE’s Principles for Intellectual Freedom in Education  point out that “All students have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others.”

But, as Hillocks notes, “evidence-based argumentation” (what we’d expect from open inquiry) needs to consider

how the moral and philosophical issues of literature will be addressed. Without an understanding of the moral concepts, students will be unable to generate arguments about the texts they read. For these moral concepts become the basis for the warrants that tie the evidence that readers perceive to the judgments they make about characters, groups, and societies, and the writers themselves and their works as wholes.

And, so, how do we prepare ourselves, our schools, and our communities to consider the heart of literature along with the mechanics of its study?

The following principles support the inclusion of agency, fairness, and multiple perspectives in the process of defending intellectual freedom in education:

• The preservation of intellectual freedom in education depends upon the fostering of democratic values in the classroom, critical thinking stances and practices among teachers and students, open inquiry methods and access to information, and the exploration of multiple points of view.
• As trained professionals, educators are qualified to select appropriate classroom materials and resources from a variety of sources given their teaching goals and the needs and interests of the students they serve.
• Professional educators, drawing upon their training and content knowledge, should play an integral role in the curriculum design process at the district and school levels.
• Educational communities should prepare for challenges to intellectual freedom with clearly defined policies and procedures that guide the review of classroom materials and resources called into question. In the creation and enactment of these policies and procedures, educators’ knowledge and expertise should be solicited as integral, valuable, and necessary.