Why Study Literature?

I haven’t posted in the last couple weeks because the fall semester has been starting, and I’ve been occupied with all of the necessary work that becomes required of me. And I’ve let Logan step in and keep you occupied with subjects like human evil and mortality (seriously, Logan, what is wrong with you!?)

Actually, Logan’s posts were pretty timely for me, but I don’t have the mental energy to tackle those subjects right now. Instead, I’d like to talk about what I’ve been talking about in my classes.

Because every semester that I teach English 102, I have to spend the first couple weeks steadily overcoming an obstacle. (it happens to a lesser extent in the other classes as well, I guess). And that obstacle this unspoken resistance that I can see in my students’ eyes, and I can hear in the echoes of the conversation hallways and meetings with their advisors: “why do I need to learn about Literature or Writing? I just want to be a ________” followed by their career goals.

Now, the first response to that objection is fairly simple: The primary goal of education is to become educated; the secondary goal is to equip students for employment. It’s your boss’s job to train you. It’s our job to make you trainable. Literacy is a basic component. The sooner you stop questioning it, the better you’ll be.

And I can explain this, but it’s a bit hard to do, and also something of a waste of time. Because my efforts are undermined by the fact that American students are buying their education, and they’ve grown up in a consumer culture where the customer is always right.

So, I’ve adopted a different approach. “Look,” I tell them, “we study literature because it teaches us all sorts of skills that tie into your job. It makes you a better communicator, it teaches you critical thinking, it teaches you how to conduct research and find the answers to problems, it teaches you how to work with others, and it teaches you empathy for your fellow human beings.

But I still feel like I’m on the defensive, and that makes me uncomfortable, so I like to end with the best reason for studying literature: because it’s fantastic.

And while I was thinking about this the other day, I had a revelation: nearly everyone agrees that it’s fantastic. By that I mean nearly everyone who is qualified to make a judgment because they have any sort of experience. There are very few people out there who have studied literature and come to the conclusion that it’s not really worth the time. There are people who say they don’t have the time, or who may not care for it; but I can’t remember meeting or reading anyone who said that it’s not worth it.

So I think I’ll respond to the question with a challenge: find someone who’s read and studied literature and still says it’s not worth it—then I’ll seriously consider your complaint.




About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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2 Responses to Why Study Literature?

  1. I’ve been teaching Developmental English, English 101, and English 102 for a few years now at a local community college. I’ve encountered some of the same issues that you discuss, though because I teach evening/weekend classes, I tend to encounter older students who have come back to school because they realize they need to improve their reading/writing/communication skills. That initial hurdle is not there. That being said, I find that students still have a hard time understanding how to develop original insights based on what they’ve read from others. They’re find with research and summarizing what others’ have said. But developing their own arguments is still a challenge — in fact it seems like a foreign concept to many. But I find that those kinds of critical thinking skills are really important.

    Enjoyed your post!

    • Derrick says:

      Thanks for the encouragement! Yes I’ve also found that the students coming back to school after some hard knocks in the workforce have such wonderful attitudes about education. They don’t need to be convinced, they just need to be told what to do.

      My current strategy for getting students to generate “original insight” is to make sure they know that there is no single, all-powerful, correct interpretation for a piece of literature. Academic writing values their ability to generate meaning from literature–not memorize an interpretation someone else has constructed.

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