Cultivating a hospitable imagination through the teaching of literature: Towards post nation-state engagements of values

Year: 2012

Author: Choo, Suzanne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Attempts to implement a nation-state model of values education are often highly contentious. Beginning with a case study analysis of Singapore's secular values education program, I describe four key problems related to the discouragement of alternative viewpoints, the limitations of student and teacher agency, the disregard towards the ambiguous nature of values particularly those tied to aspects of identity including gender, race, and religion leading to the difficulty of imposing a singular normative value system, and the disengagement with affect given the emphasis on the cognitive domain. I proceed to argue that a post nation-state model of values education would facilitate more complex engagements with values by addressing these four problems. In relation to this, the teaching of literature is especially powerful in promoting explorations of values and identity beyond the confines of the nation-state by grappling with essential questions about what it means to be a global and cosmopolitan citizen, as opposed to a nationalistic citizen, inhabiting the world. Underlying post nation-state orientations to teaching literature is a push towards promoting a hospitable imagination in order to engage the other fully. To engage the other fully, this does not mean that literature education should promote a repetitive deconstruction of meaning for the narcissistic pleasure of knowledge. Instead, hospitable ways of teaching literature prioritizes the other; they challenge us to think about how we can be accountable to multiple others in the world, and how we can continually problematize the boundaries of openness towards the other. Politically, hospitable ways of engaging the other had been conceived by Immanuel Kant in his discussion of universal hospitality that was later problematized by Jacques Derrida in his distinction between conditional and absolute hospitality. Using these concepts as discursive frames of reference, I seek to theorize the possibilities and limitations of absolute hospitality in the teaching of literature through a multiple case study analysis of literature classrooms in three cities - Perth, New York, and Singapore. I discuss how the teaching of literature can promote post nation-state engagements with values by pushing towards moments when absolute hospitality can be glimpsed or imagined. Such moments interrupt and disrupt systems and language used to designate identities of power so that a greater consciousness of the human may be reached.