Why Use Literature to Teach Peace? by Marisa Antonaya



After months of planning and negotiations, I was finally granted the opportunity to teach a seminar course on literature and human rights this semester at my university. I was ecstatic, but noticed that a few of my colleagues were more than slightly baffled by the course content. Human rights and literature? Reading for peace? I was engaged in several discussions with colleagues and administrators that made me understand the need to properly explain and introduce the subject matter.

Therefore, while this essay is primarily intended as a prologue to the TAP course I will be sharing with you over the next few readings, I may just also turn it into an attractive little flyer and distribute it among my curious colleagues.

When bringing together such ample and powerful concepts as the written word and the rights and responsibilities that we share as human beings, our first task is to anchor them to a set of common traits that will allow us better footing on this terrain. These points are varied and to some degree subjective, but I’d like to get the ball of critical thinking rolling by briefly describing the common ground -which will tend to shift occasionally, but otherwise steadies me quite nicely – on which I tend to stand.

1. Freedom.

This was an obvious meeting point for me. Clearly, human rights (and when I speak of human rights, I am above all referring to them as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) deal partly with freedoms- freedom from violation, the freedom to realise our full potential as individuals, the freedom to respectfully explore and inhabit this world of diversity.

And we find these same premises in much of literature. As writers, we are free to create worlds and populate them with the characters who will become our messengers, or to condense our strongest emotions into a set of tightly focused verses and stanzas. In my mind, few have described the ultimate consequences of our everyday actions better than Dante.

As readers, we face a completely different kind of freedom – to temporarily give up control and the notion of knowing ourselves and the world we live in. Ultimately, this provides us with minds open and flexible enough to discern relationships between apparently distant ideas, and moreover, to translate them into the common tongue of our time and place. To me it seems odd sometimes, how far we must push ourselves from reality in order to understand it. Why do we need Orwell’s Animal Farm to discuss totalitarianism? Because we will identify faults in total unknowns before we acknowledge our own…even while the truth seeps in gradually.

In short, literature offers us a laboratory of sorts, where we can combine and separate elements, and hold on to the illusion that we are looking at something outside of our own lives.

2. Openness

The spirit of a world community invoked by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot be approached without an open mind and heart. All of our fears, hesitations, stereotypes and prejudices about other races, religions, nationalities, etc. must be shed immediately. Otherwise, they become insurmountable obstacles to progress; the old skin must disappear completely before the new one can breathe freely.

Likewise, the study of literature requires us to discard facile notions of what we know as “right” and “wrong”, which in my opinion is comparable to tightly clutching our preconceived images of “black,” “white,” etc… My students will often look at me after having commented on a reading, expecting me to say: “yes, that was the right answer” or “no, that was wrong.” It takes a few sessions, but eventually they understand that in literature all perspectives count if they can be proved by quoting from the text.

Of course, human rights are there to identify “right” and “wrong” behaviour (rights and responsibilities, rights and violations…). But both an approach to peace studies and the reading of literature require that we let our guard down, begin dismantling the hard and dangerously rusty armour that keeps us from appreciating the diversity of human experience.

3. Critical Thinking

Openness does not imply complete naiveté; that would be a terrible mistake. It is the crucial first step towards a better understanding, because it clears a path and allows us to seek out alternatives on our journey towards peace. Our next task is to sift through the vast amount of information – mental, emotional and instinctive – that we carry with us, stepping back from ourselves once again in order to form a fair evaluation of our subject.

Critical thinking was necessary for the creation of the Universal Declaration, when a solid set of rights and responsibilities had to be extracted from a complex web of cultures and traditions. How to design a common foundation without creating tension among diverse groups of peoples? The result, the thirty articles outlining every person’s fundamental blueprint for living with joy and dignity, is proof that we are, indeed, capable of seeing beyond our own immediate context.

Reading, too, requires a similar spirit. For, although it is indeed open to interpretation in many respects, our observations must be backed up by textual proof. Therefore, we must work at separating the essence of the text (its message to us) from its surrounding elements (language, context, concrete but limiting details). What does this novel, this poem, this essay fundamentally mean for us, and how can we prove that this core meaning exists?


These thoughts are merely fragments of dialogue that I have with myself daily, as I set out to teach or research the link between art and peace. These are some of the ideas that, for me, bind these two fields. As we progress in establishing programs of interdisciplinary education, where different areas of study are not forcefully separated but rather flow gracefully together, I like to think that we should try out as many combinations as possible. History and literature? Science and history? Political science and language arts? Of course.

As for me, I have found a perfect match in teaching human rights through literature…or literature through human rights. It unites two of my goals in this life: to share the beauty and strength of the written word, and to contribute – however small my role – to creating bonds of understanding among people.