THE BLOG

Literature, What Is It Good For?

09/23/2013 10:28 am ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013

As I get ready to begin another year of teaching literature and literary theory classes at my university, it occurs to me to reflect on what it means to teach such courses today. Recently, there has been another outbreak of public debate regarding what value, if any, the teaching of the liberal arts in general, and literature in particular, stills hold for college students. So instead of discussing specific literary or critical topics, as I usually do in this space, I'd like to float some more general reflections regarding higher education in the humanities today.

The socio-political backdrop of the latest cry of "there's a crisis in the humanities" is clear, at least in the United States: we are in a long-term era of declining public funding for higher education and mounting student debt. The causes of these trends are complex and open to debate; what is clear is that neither looks like it's going to change any time soon. As a result, some commentators have posited a relationship between these pressures and what look like declining rates of majors in the liberal arts. Not so fast, others have responded. Although numbers of majors in traditional humanities departments like English, history, and philosophy seem unlikely to re-reach their highs of the 1960s, the rise of interdisciplinary majors and "area studies" degrees means that today's students have more options from which to choose, and are therefore fanning out across the humanities rather than dropping them altogether.

Nevertheless, there's no denying that majors perceived as practical are thriving -- business-related fields now enroll more students than any other discipline -- whereas the humanities are at best holding steady. This, in turn, has led some well-meaning commentators to mount defenses of the latter that emphasize its practical sides. Their basic argument -- which is not new so much as retooled for our financially-strapped, information-heavy times -- is that the humanities continue to have value because we teach students broad but deep sets of skills they can then use in a variety of advanced degrees or work settings after their undergraduate years. Close reading, coherent writing, public speaking, and the all-pervasive virtue of critical thinking have all been touted as skills that will help humanities students achieve success as effectively as their peers with degrees in public health or engineering.

I'm usually reluctant to debate these kinds of value-driven arguments, especially when students are legitimately worried about how they're going to pay off their student loans and make their way in the world after college. But whether they mean to or not, these claims obscure another important side of what study in the humanities can do: it can help students learn to question how and why we have come to accept the current definitions of "success" and "the real world." This is important because those definitions -- of success as ultimately measured in dollars, and of a world that mostly accepts global inequality as a fact of life -- have helped create or worsen many of the crises (economic, ecological, political) we now face.

Along these lines, I mistrust the implication that critical thinking -- thinking at length and in-depth, with imagination, sympathy, and careful skepticism -- can simply be "plugged in" to life in the workforce upon graduation. After all, the critical in "critical thinking" should not just designate critique in the negative sense of criticizing something; it should also signify the ability to imagine alternatives to the status quo. When we teach our students to think critically -- by modeling such habits of mind from the front of the class, as well as by giving them examples of it in their readings -- we are in effect teaching them to question what society has been telling them to desire all along. This can and perhaps should be a disconcerting experience, but it also can and should leave students with a stronger sense of their own abilities, goals, and dreams going forward.

The other argument in favor of the humanities that has returned lately is simple: reading books will make you a better person. This is an old line of thought, going back to the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold, and before him to the classical author Horace. But it also leaves me feeling ambivalent. For one thing, it's not difficult to refute anecdotally: we all know (or at least know of) people who read a lot but are still mean, selfish, or otherwise unpleasant. Nevertheless, I do think that reading -- especially reading fictional narratives, whether War and Peace or Watchmen -- offers interpretive challenges and pleasures that cannot be found easily elsewhere. These challenges and pleasures, in turn, may lead to a greater ability to identify with other people and ways of life, as well as to a greater ability to question one's own assumptions and motivations. But these are by no means given, and I hesitate to offer literature to my students as a tool for self-improvement just as I hesitate to offer "critical thinking" to them as a means to a gainful employment.

So where does all this leave me as I embark on another year of teaching literature at the college level? If nothing else, it leaves me grateful for the opportunity once again to get into a classroom with a group of young adults, to challenge them with my questions and interpretations regarding the texts and ideas we will study together, and to listen to their responses and fresh takes. It also makes me again realize the wisdom of the great English poet W.H. Auden when he wrote: "Poetry makes nothing happen." Because Auden's "nothing," as I will suggest to my students when I next teach the poem in which this line appears, may be something much more than mere absence; it may be a possibility that was not imaginable prior to the acts of reading, writing, and interpreting that still make up the core activities of the humanities -- and, arguably, of humanity as whole.