Why Study Literature?
Thursday in one of my Introduction to Literature courses, one of my students said, "Ma'am, I have a question. No disrespect, but...."
We all know the feeling that comes with any question or remark that begins that way. I thought, "Oh boy. Here it comes."
"...Why do we need to learn this? Is my commander going to send me a poem and ask me to explicate it?"
This question always flummoxes me--not because I have no answer, but because the answers are so obvious to me yet so myriad that I don't know where to begin to answer. I considered actually assigning him some research on the subject for his first journal, or perhaps incorporating this in my classes next semester as a beginning essay: why is the close study of literature so important and enduring? (Indeed, I may still do this.) Then it occurred to me that if there are so many answers and they are so obvious to me, perhaps I should list them myself and use them as a Why Study Literature? Reason Of The Day. While I love all the [fill in the blank] Of The Day ideas I've heard of and seen in action (word of the day, poem of the day, quote of the day), I can think of none that my classes need more than ongoing reasons to study literature.
Here's my initial list. You'll find some overlap here and there, but each outcome, I think, is unique. I'd like your thoughts on the list, additions to it, and expansions on ideas already listed, please.
1. To benefit from the insight of others. The body of world literature contains most available knowledge about humanity--our beliefs, our self-perception, our philosophies, our assumptions and our interactions with the world at large. Some of life's most important lessons are subtly expressed in our art. We learn these lessons only if we pause to think about what we read. Why would anyone bury important ideas? Because some ideas cannot be expressed adequately in simple language, and because the lessons we have to work for are the ones that stick with us.
2. To open our minds to ambiguities of meaning. While people will "say what they mean and mean what they say" in an ideal world, language in our world is, in reality, maddeningly and delightfully ambiguous. If you go through life expecting people to play by your rules, you'll only be miserable, angry and disappointed. You won't change them. Ambiguity, double entendres and nuance give our language depth and endless possibility. Learn it. Appreciate it. Revel in it.
3. To explore other cultures and beliefs. History, anthropology and religious studies provide a method of learning about the cultures and beliefs of others from the outside looking in. Literature, on the other hand, allows you to experience the cultures and beliefs of others first-hand, from the inside looking out. The only other way to have such a personal understanding of others' beliefs are to adopt them yourself--which most of us aren't willing to do. If you understand where other people are coming from, you are better equipped to communicate meaningfully with them--and they with you.
4. To appreciate why individuals are the way they are. Each person we meet represents a unique concoction of knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. In our own culture we find an infinite variety of attitudes and personalities, hatreds and bigotries, and assumptions. With each exposure to those who differ from us, we expand our minds. We may still reject their beliefs and assumptions, but we're one step closer to understanding them.
5. To expand our grasp of the machinations of history. History and literature are inextricably entertwined. History is not just names and dates and politics and wars and power. History is about people who were products of their time with their own intricately-woven value systems. Study of literature enhances our appreciation of history's complexity, which in turn expands our appreciation of present political complexities and better equips us to predict and prepare for the...
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