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Old 08-27-2006, 04:17 PM
huntress huntress is offline
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Default 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 future.

6. To exercise our brains. Our brains need exercise just like our bodies do. Don't balk at picking up the barbell and doing a few mental curls. Great literature has hidden meanings that won't slap us in the face like childrens' books will; we'll have to dig and analyze like an adult to find the gold.

7. To teach us to see individual bias. In a sense, each of us is an unreliable or naive narrator, but most of us mindlessly accept the stories of certain friends or family without qualification. We should remember that they are centers of their own universes, though, just like we are. They are first-person narrators--not omniscient--just like we are. The only thing that suffers when we appreciate individual bias is our own gullibility.

8. To encourage us to question "accepted" knowledge. As children, most of us were taught to believe what we're told and those basic hypotheses provide our schemas, or building blocks of knowledge. As we grow, we learn to question some ideas while rejecting the offensively alien ideas outright, often without real examination. However, human progress often results from the rejection of assumed "facts." The difficulty lies in spotting our own unexamined assumptions. The more ideas we expose yourself to, the more of our own assumptions we can root out to question and either discard or ground our lives in.

9. To help us see ourselves as others do. Literature is a tool of self-examination. You will see your own personality or habits or assumptions in literature. The experience may even be painful. While our ego defense systems help us avoid self-scrutiny and ignore others' observations or reactions to us, literature serves as a mirror, revealing us to ourselves in all our naked, undefended glory.

10. To appreciate the contributions literature has made to history. The pen is mightier than the sword, yes? When a country undergoes regime change, the new regime imprisons, exiles or executes the intelligentsia--scholars and philosophers--who are seen as the keepers of the culture, creators of ideology, and instigators of revolt. See Russian, Chinese, and German history for examples. In American history, see the copious examples of pro- and anti-slavery literature as well as Thomas Paine's and Thomas Jefferson's contributions to the American Revolution.

11. To see the tragedy. Lenin said "A million deaths are a statistic, but one death is a tragedy." History gives you the statistics. Literature shows you the human tragedy.

12. To further our mastery of language. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words build and destroy nations. Study of literature hones our language skills and teaches us new and valuable techniques for communication. A master of language can seduce your emotions and inspire you to follow him into death--or he can crush your will with a word. Language is the single most important tool of leadership and great leaders embrace its study.

13. To recognize language devices and appreciate their emotional power. Like good music, poetry uses wordplay, rhythm, and sounds to lull the reader into an emotional fog, and therein deliver its message. Great leaders learn to harness these techniques of communication and persuasion. Listen closely to effective advertisements and politicians and lawyers. Listen to the pleasing rhythm and wordplay of their mantras, and watch the sheep blithely flock to them: "It does not fit--you must aquit!" "Crisp and clean and no caffeine!" Politicians use prolific parallelism: "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail."

14. To explore ethical complexities. Only children find ethical rules cut and dried. Literature forces readers to challenge their simplistic ethical conceptions and sometimes their outright condemnation of others' actions. For example, we believe lying is wrong. But what do we mean? Do we never lie? Have you ever met a person rude enough to follow this rule implicitly? Be advised, though: ethical exploration is a mature endeavor; it is not for the thin-skinned.

15. To see the admirable in everyday life. We are surrounded by unsung nobility and sacrifice. Once we learn to see it in the actions of common folk, our lives will be forever richer, as will our faith in humanity itself.

16. To learn better ways to behave. An untold amount of our opinions and words and reactions are absorbed during childhood and from our culture. Literature teaches us better courses of action and more effective responses to situations...if we let it.

17. To know we aren't alone. Others have been where we are, have felt as we feel, have believed as we believe. Paradoxically, we are unique just like everyone else. But we aren't alone. Others were here and they survived...and may have even learned from it--and so may we.

18. To refine our judgment. This involves several aspects of reading: exposure to new ideas and new ways of looking at old assumptions, expanded vocabulary and understanding, and improved ability to write. Altogether, these benefits refine our ability to think, and thus guide us toward informed, mature judgment.

19. To learn to support our points of view and trust our own interpretations. We provide evidence for our interpretation of a story or poem when we explicate it. When we build a solid case in support of our opinion, we build self-confidence in our own interpretations of language itself.

20. To develop empathy for those who are unlike us. Literature can train and exercise our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours. As children, our circles of concern stop with ourselves. As we grow, we expand those circles to our families and friends, and perhaps to our neighborhoods, towns, cities, states or countries. Our study of literature continues to expand that realm of concern beyond the things we physically experience.

21. To expand our vocabularies. New words are tools for grasping new ideas. Each new idea is a building block upon which we may acquire more knowledge. Knowledge is power.

More? Comments? Corrections? Expansions?

d
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  #2  
Old 08-27-2006, 04:23 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

:1thumbup: All I can say is that is a great list and a gret idea! :yup:
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Old 08-27-2006, 05:02 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Thanks, Crumb.

There have to be more, though.

22. To improve our writing skills. We didn't perfect our writing skills in grade school or high school. Many people have failed to grasp the basics by 18. We learn to speak by listening and imitating; we learn to write by reading and imitating.

23. To learn to use our language well. In order to do this, we must immerse ourselves in it. Since most college graduates tend to use words a fifth-grader can understand when speaking, simply speaking the language is insufficient for continued improvement. Literature, however, presents at infinite variety of ideas, words and expressions.

24. To improve our reading comprehension. Most people stop improving their reading comprehension in high school, if not before. Improvement in this area pays obvious dividends throughout our professional careers. We improve by reading and analyzing what we read.

More?

(23 and 12 kinda go together, but not entirely, I think.)

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Old 08-27-2006, 06:43 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Cuz it's fun? [/simplistic book lover's view]
:peekaboo:
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Old 08-27-2006, 09:12 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

The short answer would be, "Because this isn't a Vo-Tech school."

The whole idea behind a liberal arts education is to teach people how to process and generalize information, not just how to perform some specific job function.

For all the reasons you listed and others, studying literature or, for that matter, art or history or any of a number of other liberal arts subjects, helps you hone your thought processes and introduces you to concepts and experiences you'd otherwise not be exposed to. It lets you take advantage of wisdom without having to earn it the old fashioned way. It helps you put your own experience into proper perspective. It improves your appreciation for nuance and makes you better at interpreting and predicting events.

It makes you a better, more diplomatic decision maker and a more capable leader. It helps you to articulate and explain your positions. It helps you better generalize information so that you can adapt to new technologies, new job responsibilities, and other things that get tossed your way in the future.

You get a liberal arts education not to learn how to perform some specific job-related task, but to help you learn how to think, how to adapt, and how to understand and apply new information as it comes along, so you can perform job-related tasks that haven't even been invented yet.
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Old 08-27-2006, 09:26 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Outstanding list, sis. After you nail that to the church door, give them this to read for homework.
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Old 08-27-2006, 09:38 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

A very comprehensive list, huntress!

I'd like to increase the distinction between "Why study literature?" vs. "Why read literature?" Many of your reasons could easily be satisfied by an individual doing some thoughtful reading of literature and wouldn't necessarily require a formal classrom "study" environment.
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Old 08-27-2006, 09:47 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Great thread and great list, huntress!
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Old 08-28-2006, 01:28 AM
huntress huntress is offline
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Quote:
Originally Posted by lisarea
The short answer would be, "Because this isn't a Vo-Tech school."
That's already much better than my "Because this is college and you have to have my class to graduate, so buck up, buddy." Yours actually implies there's more to it than "we do this just to harrass you, it's true."

Quote:
The whole idea behind a liberal arts education is to teach people how to process and generalize information, not just how to perform some specific job function.

For all the reasons you listed and others, studying literature or, for that matter, art or history or any of a number of other liberal arts subjects, helps you hone your thought processes and introduces you to concepts and experiences you'd otherwise not be exposed to. It lets you take advantage of wisdom without having to earn it the old fashioned way. It helps you put your own experience into proper perspective. It improves your appreciation for nuance and makes you better at interpreting and predicting events.

It makes you a better, more diplomatic decision maker and a more capable leader. It helps you to articulate and explain your positions. It helps you better generalize information so that you can adapt to new technologies, new job responsibilities, and other things that get tossed your way in the future.

You get a liberal arts education not to learn how to perform some specific job-related task, but to help you learn how to think, how to adapt, and how to understand and apply new information as it comes along, so you can perform job-related tasks that haven't even been invented yet.
I'm so stealing...erm, plaiger...ah, appropriating your rant. Thank you bunches.

I may need to subdivide it into several answers. Or not.

pesci,

Yeah, I noticed. And I agree. Sorta. See, part of the advantage of literature courses is that they force you to read stuff you wouldn't otherwise pick up unless you're livius. And there are advantages to just reading.

But as usual, your point is sound and well taken.

(Upon review of your post, I feel obliged to comment that my class is designed to provoke thought about the readings and little more. I began with the "teach them all about symbolism and plotting and characterization and POV and...zzzzzz" approach. I tossed it around the third or fourth class day, having realized that as this is a basic literature course, my goal should be to get the students personally engaged in the literature I assign. I just want proof that they're thinking about what they read. My goal is to get them to dive at least a little below the surface, because they'll remember the pretty fishes they find there in two years when they have their one inch gold trophy and go off to change the Air Force from the bottom up and find it can't be done and yes...they need more than good grades in aeronautical engineering to be a good officer. In short, I want to make them readers. I want to show them at least one poem that speaks to them in a way that prose cannot. If they come into my classroom with that door closed and leave with it cracked even a little, I have accomplished what I set out to do.)

d
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Old 08-28-2006, 03:03 AM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

A quite impressive list!

To me, it's why do we do anything? Passion. Some part of us needs it like we need to eat and breathe. The beauty is that we may not even know it until we expose ourselves and open up those doors. Such is life - never stop learning and you never stop living.

I am a science nerd to the bone of course, but I have a deep passion for lit. I took as many lit classes as I could in college and was pretty proud of myself for scoring at the top of the class in my Renissance Lit class while the English majors were struggling. Sigh... I do miss those Lit classes, I am kicking around going back to school for that very reason.

You know speaking of getting the students engaged, I took a women's lit class where the professor had us read and try out some of the various writing techniques used in the pieces we were reading. I remember reading "The House on Mango Street" and writing vignettes. It made it personal, you know?
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Old 08-28-2006, 03:03 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Quote:
Originally Posted by biochemgirl
You know speaking of getting the students engaged, I took a women's lit class where the professor had us read and try out some of the various writing techniques used in the pieces we were reading. I remember reading "The House on Mango Street" and writing vignettes. It made it personal, you know?
Yes!

I have my students writing limericks for me right now--with alliteration. I had to tell them what a limerick is (!). Of course, I had to explain alliteration, as well. The rule is: three instances of alliteration per long line and two per short.

The reason I gave them was this: because I used to hate to watch golf on TV. :D

(Then I picked up a club and tried it myself....)

Now they'll appreciate good alliteration when they see it--and they'll see it. ;)

Heh.

They don't know it, but I'm teaching them things while their backs are turned....

d
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Old 08-28-2006, 05:19 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

Jane Austen defends the novel (thought frivolous in her day) in Nothanger Abbey:

Quote:
..... if a rainy morning deprived them (Catherine and Isabella) of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
Or you could show your students:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Keats

24. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer


MUCH have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 5
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
(Don't mention to the Intro to Lit students that it was Balboa, not Cortez, who with eagle eyes first stared at the Pacific. It might turn them off to poetry.)
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Old 08-28-2006, 08:12 PM
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Default Re: Why Study Literature?

It's an awesome list, diana!
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