Teaching Literature and Ethics for a Global Age

Teaching Literature and Ethics for a Global Age

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

by Assistant Professor Suzanne Choo, English Language and Literature Academic Group

Hyper-connectivity marks the present epoch. Teaching Literature with and through ethics provides an avenue to fostering cosmopolitan sensitivities that may mitigate intolerance and xenophobia in our time.

We live in a world that is often described as “a global village”, “flat”, and “networked”. While the interconnectedness of the twenty-first century has facilitated the flows of capital, culture and knowledge, it has led to rising instances of extremism and xenophobia. Concerns about the negative effects of globalisation have catalysed urgent calls for investment in global education to develop intercultural sensitivities.

Global education’s influence in Literature has been observed in major accreditation bodies such as the International Baccalaureate’s Literature syllabus where students are introduced to other cultural perspectives through studying literary works in translation from a list of texts in more than 30 languages.

Another example is the Cambridge Assessment International Education’s IGCSE World Literature syllabus where a weightage of 50% is given to coursework portfolio, allowing students to research about and respond to literature from at least two different cultures.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Education recently launched the 2019 Literature in English syllabus centred on four student outcomes—one of which is the development of empathetic and global thinkers—and a literary response framework that encourages students to connect the text to self, other readers, other texts, and the world.

These examples highlight the significant role Literature plays in expanding students’ consciousness of global issues in the twenty-first century. I argue that Literature’s unique contribution to global education is in equipping students with the skills and dispositions to engage with global ethics. In particular, Literature fosters habits of ethical attunement and ethical reasoning.

Today, the teaching of Literature has shifted away from the centuries-old obsession with appreciating the stylistic properties of texts, particularly Western Canonical texts.

Literature teachers will not only need to equip students to analyse the aesthetics of literature from around the world, they will also need to tap on the potential of these texts for ethical attunement and ethical reasoning so that students can learn to navigate the cultural complexities of our global age.

Ethical Attunement

Literature provides a gateway to understanding lived experiences of individuals at various times and places around the world. It offers insights into cultures that students may not necessarily have access to. For instance, most students would not travel to countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, or North Korea in their lifetime. Perhaps the only access to understanding these cultures may be through their narratives and oral histories.

In classrooms, I have observed Literature teachers employing texts like Shooting Kabul to explore the plight of families escaping the war in Afghanistan and confronting the discrimination they faced in a post-9/11 America; A Tale of Two Cities to examine contemporary poverty; and poems written by migrant workers to understand issues of social integration among foreign workers (Choo, 2016, 2017).

These texts function as openings into unfamiliar worlds and attune students to issues of global injustices particularly those arising from the excesses of global capitalism. By providing insights into the experiences of others, literary texts inherently invite hospitable openness and empathetic connections to marginalised others in the world.

Ethical Reasoning

Literature education is closely intertwined with the practice of literary criticism. From the 18th century to the present, various movements in literary criticism have influenced Literature pedagogies, particularly New Criticism, Reader Response Criticism, and Post-structuralist Criticism.

Since the late 20th century, there has been much interest in Ethical Criticism, with scholars noting a “turn to ethics” in literary studies (Garber, Hanssen, & Walkowitz, 2000; Gregory, 2010). Essentially, Ethical Criticism emphasises an analytical approach to ethics as opposed to the use of Literature for moral indoctrination.

Morality, from the Latin word moralis, refers to customs or manners, whereas ethics stems from the Greek word ethos, which denotes character (Thiroux, 2001). While morality is concerned with right and wrong according to specific social conventions, ethics is concerned with an individual’s character and how he/she develops in relation to others.

Teaching Literature for moral education emphasises the moral of the story and tends to be didactic. Conversely, teaching Literature from the angle of ethics is inquiry-oriented and its essential pedagogic approach is dialogic. The application of Ethical Criticism in the Literature classroom involves providing opportunities for students to analyse moral norms and values of communities in the text, how ethical dilemmas are resolved by characters, the ideologies informing cultural practices, and issues involving fairness, justice and human dignity.


  • Choo, S. S. (2016). Fostering the hospitable imagination through cosmopolitan pedagogies: Re-envisioning literature education in Singapore. Research in the Teaching of English, 50(4), 400-421.
  • Choo, S. S. (2017). Globalizing Literature pedagogy: Applying cosmopolitan ethical criticism to the teaching of Literature. Harvard Educational Review, 87(3), 335-356.
  • Garber, M., Hanssen, B., & Walkowitz, R. L. (Eds.) (2000). The turn to ethics. New York: Routledge.
  • Gregory, M. W. (2010). Redefining ethical criticism: The old vs. the new. Journal of Liter-ary Theory, 4(2). Retrieved from http://www.jltonline.de/index.php/articles/article/view/287/879
  • Thiroux, J.P. (2001). Ethics: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.