Why Literature Matters In 2013

Image from Grammarly at Facebook

Image from Grammarly at Facebook

I was recently reading an interview with actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) in which he was asked about New Year’s resolutions, and I found his reply interesting:

“I’ve had the same resolutions for about 20 years, which is to read The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and I’m only on about book No. 3.  I’m a terrible reader, which is a great shame because literature is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.”

I have to admit I’ve had a similar resolution over the years—not to read Dickens, who is not my favorite author by a long shot—but to read my way through Dante.  I’ve never made it, even though I have good translations.  They sit on a shelf and mock me annually.  Someday.

But more to the point of this post, what struck me about that quote was Bonneville’s assertion that literature “is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.”

I have the dreaded B.A. in English.  And even 30 years ago, people asked “But what will you do with it?”  The answer back then was “anything I want.”  And I have done a lot of interesting things: I’ve taught, I’ve worked as a technical writer, I’ve done a little (very little) ad writing and copy editing.  I’ve written countless resumes for people, published poems, written two unpublished novels (just to see if I could, you know) and been paid to give my opinions on books.  And that’s just me. I know plenty of people with the same degree who do a variety of fascinating jobs—several of them own very successful businesses, for example, many are active in politics, and one develops and writes video games.  My co-conspirator here wrangles spreadsheets for her day job.  Another friend has an executive position in a bank.  A young woman I know is now teaching English at a Chinese school, and now that her Mandarin has improved significantly, she and her husband also run a small translating business on the side.  Really, the possibilities are endless.

So when people want to know if there’s really any value to studying literature these days, my kneejerk response is “of course.”  You learn things as an English major that may not be quite the same as, say, what you’d learn in an engineering class, but you come out with quite a useful little toolkit.  Studying literature teaches you about people, for one thing—you learn how to analyze motivations and fears and hopes.  You also learn to think critically, to connect-the-dots, to figure things out.  You learn how to research, to argue, to defend your thoughts, to read between the lines, to synthesize information. You also write a lot of papers when you study literature—a LOT of papers—so you also learn how to write effectively and coherently, which is a most useful skill.  Altogether, you come out knowing a lot about Dickens and Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf’s writing, sure, but you know way more than that.

You have a fundamental grasp of the human experience through the ages.  Literature spans so many other disciplines–the social sciences, history, philosophy, theology, etc.—that you come out prepared for anything life throws at you.  And that includes learning any special skill that you might need in a job, which is important because people will insist on putting some sort of valuation on a degree.  So let’s do that.  Literature–and I’d argue, the humanities in general–is a valuable field of study that does provide you with a skill set that translates into earning a living.  Because you don’t just learn about books, you learn how to research, to synthesize, to present an effective argument, to think.  And if you know how to think, you are a few steps from being able to do almost anything (I feel compelled to qualify that statement with “almost” because truthfully, you probably won’t know how to build a race car or a nuclear reactor, although you’d have the skills to try and figure it out if you were so inclined).

We live in a world now that is vastly different from the one I was launched into 30 years ago when I graduated with my BA in English.  Back then, personal computers were vastly expensive and rarely owned by the average person, CDs were a year or two away from being common, and digital media was completely unheard of–TVs were still analog, and people still wrote actual handwritten letters instead of logging into Facebook or streaming their favorite programs on Netflix.  Research was not a mouse click away, but required hours spent in libraries with books and microfilm.  But we have all this lovely technology today precisely because people still need to think creatively.  And it will continue to evolve for precisely that reason.

There’s a reason colleges and universities require general education courses across a wide variety of disciplines.  Being exposed to other areas of study outside one’s own declared field of interests enhances learning.  When I taught, I had engineering students who actually resented being forced to take a course in technical writing by their departments.  They seemed to think they’d have no use for such a thing.  I had science majors who didn’t understand why they were asked to take a basic literature course—what does MacBeth or Animal Farm have to do Chemistry or Biology, they’d argue?

I probably don’t need to point out that my answer to that question was “everything.”  But I always made them figure it out.  That was pretty much the whole point, after all.

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I think that studying literature is even more valuable today than ever.  We live in a world where people change jobs all the time, where versatility is required.  We also live in a world where advances in technology and science happen so rapidly that processing those developments requires a nimble mind capable of understanding such things.  And not to get all political on you, but we also live in a society where, I would argue, the ability to think and reason for oneself is vital—otherwise, our personal philosophies become parroted talking points, not strongly held convictions.

And finally, it was my personal pleasure to introduce works of fiction to people who’d seldom read a book prior to taking my literature class.  Many of them went on to investigate other works by an author who’d struck a chord with them, and I had more than one 18 year old say, “I never realized that books had all these ideas in them!”  Indeed they do—from Shakespeare to Stephen King to romance novels and mystery fiction, they do indeed have ideas in them that make the reader think, to consider, to discard or to keep.  Turning someone into a lifelong reader was one of the greatest pleasures I ever got when teaching, because I knew I was also turning them into a lifelong thinker.  And honestly, as long as we have people who can think, we’ll be okay.

Comments

  1. says

    Hear! Hear!

    Granted I’m biased, but literature also reminds us no story is too small or too insignificant to influence. Literature also is how we explore the past, the present, and the future. It allows us to develop our empathy, and it lets us open our minds. And it entertains us. What other field can do that?

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  2. donna says

    Oh indeed. I’m just a little tired of hearing that the humanities have no value in the 21st Century. That, in my humble opinion, is bullshit. Plus, we should never stop learning. It’s a lifelong adventure.

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  3. says

    I suspect there will always be some people who want to major in Lit (like the girl in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, who said something like “If what you loved more than anything else was to read, and you had a chance to go do nothing else for four years, wouldn’t you take it?”) I’m less worried about that than about what literature is taught to everyone else. I had some great courses in English and Folklore as part of my engineering degree, but I had to try to get them. I worry more about what other people take; I was only required to take 7 SSH courses and they could be anything; I think people in state schools are required to take more, but I wonder about the contents of some of those forced English classes, and if they’re interesting at all. (I’m also deeply grateful for the excellent grounding I got in my high school English and History classes; I’d thank my teachers, but the History one is probably dead by now and I can’t seem to find any contact for the English teacher.

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  4. DrMM says

    I’m not going to argue that an English degree has no value because I certainly think it does. However, I DO think that it can be harder to get a job with an English degree than a career-specific one. I say this as someone who has a BA in English AND History and struggled to find a job after I came back from two years of pretending to teach English in Japan. Part of it may well be my fault, because I honestly wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a career (I never wanted to teach – I just wanted to go to Japan) and most of the options I could find that I thought I was suited for education-wise also looked incredibly boring besides not paying well at all. And when I had the opportunity to work for a college library, I also discovered that was NOT what I thought it was.

    In the end, I went back to school to be an X-Ray tech (which I really, really enjoy).

    I don’t exactly regret my original choice to major in English. Before college, I’d lived a pretty restricted life and never had to look at life from any other perspective than the rural, white Christian one I’d been raised in. While I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, a lot of the things I read and discussed in my literature classes forced me to think about life from another point of view (Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie in particular). That experience will always have value.

    But even saying that, if I’d known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have chosen to major in English. Financially I’m at a significant disadvantage, since I’m still working on paying back student loans. At the age of 34 I still have 5 years of loan payments to go. If I’d gone to X-Ray school first, I would have graduated debt free and I would be in much better financial state than I am now.

    I suppose what I’m really trying to say is this: Before someone decides to major in English, they need to think very, very carefully about what they want to do for a job. I chose English because reading and writing were my strongest classes (best grades with the least amount of work) — I just assumed that decent grades with a college degree would get me some sort of amazing job that I would love. It didn’t.

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  5. donna says

    I feel like you are trying to be circumspect when you say things like “I’m less worried about that than about what literature is taught to everyone else.” I mean, I’m not really sure what that means, and since it’s open to misinterpretation on my part I don’t really want to respond and get your intent wrong.

    As for “forced” English classes–I taught in two state universities. The only classes that were “forced” on people were freshman comp, which is required by virtually every college and university I know of because writing is an important skill, and UMaine did make the engineering majors take a course in technical writing, which focused not only on grammar, but appropriate technical document form and style. I assure you it was useful. As for interesting, I imagine that, like any class, that depended entirely on who taught it.

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  6. donna says

    Thanks for your perspective. I think your experience is actually fairly common. You’re also what I’d call a “bit” younger than I am :) I think it’s far more difficult now to find a well-paying job with a BA in English, and given the cost of a university education (I’m currently putting my only child through college, so I am well aware of the cost!) I totally understand why both students–who are probably encouraged by their parents–gravitate toward fields where the end result is likely to be a job that will at least allow them to pay off any loans.

    The downside to that, of course, is that someone then ends up paying for being trained in a field they may either dislike or not be suited for. One of the classes I used to teach was a continuing ed class in intro to lit. The number of recent engineering majors in those classes was always astonishing. When I asked them why they were back in school, I’d get a variation of “I hate engineering, but I figured it was the only way to get a job.”

    The interesting thing to me about your post is that I’d consider that your degree in English was quite valuable in many ways, just not from a financial standpoint. You spent two years in Japan, which must have been quite an adventure that a lot of people will never have, and gained a great deal of insight about the world. I am sorry about the debt though. If it’s any consolation, it feels really good when you finally make that last payment :)

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  7. says

    I’m not being “circumspect”; I’m saying that people who already love reading will always major in English or at least take as many classes in it as they can get. (Unless of course the classes themselves frighten people off, by claiming that their favorite genre doesn’t count; see Scalzi’s recent requiem for his writing teacher. Or by insisting that engaging the reader is not a necessary factor for a good book.) We were taught technical writing, which is indeed useful and necessary for engineers, but that’s a far cry from literature. My concern is, how do we expose people majoring in engineering and nursing and business to literature? Is that purely the responsibility of high school, or are they missing something if they don’t also get it at the college level?

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  8. donna says

    Okay. Well, I am obviously not familiar with the curricular requirements of every college and university in the country, but I think the established gen ed requirements are geared toward exposing those people to literature (and history, art, music, etc.) just as they are also there to make sure that people focusing on humanities courses get some exposure to math and science. I know I had to take 2 college math courses (one of which just about killed me) and 2 science classes, one of which *had* to be a lab science. The intent of any college education should be to produce a well-rounded human being. So at the places where I am familiar with the curriculum, I know that nursing and business and science students do have to take a spread of humanities courses. They have a wide variety of things to choose from–a general introductory course in literature or something more specific like poets and poetry, plays, and even things like a class that reads nothing but horror or science fiction . So the exposure is absolutely there.

    In a time where budgets, especially at state universities, are being slashed, my concern is mainly with those people who think the humanities have no value whatsoever because they do not always lead straight into some technical field. If we were educating a society of robots, I’d be less concerned with this. But aside from saying something fatuous like “there should always be a place for beauty in our lives”, I think the important thing is that there should always be a place for thinking in our lives. For thinking, for imagination, and for those less tangible skills that are just as valuable as knowing how to culture a sample.

    And I’d argue, for the record, that teaching students how to think critically and across the curriculum is the responsibility of both high schools and universities. Even the local technical colleges here have basic humanities requirements for a reason :)

    Thank you for clarifying what you wrote. I won’t tell you what I thought you were saying…

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  9. DrMM says

    I do think my degrees were valuable in many ways, which is why I have such a hard time with this kind of discussion. I learned so much and had so many great experiences because of my degree choice that I don’t regret the time I spent at all. However, I would have a very difficult time recommending this path to any current or future college students because I have also seen the negative side to this choice.

    I also think that the value of a general college degree has decreased in the past 30 years. So many more people go to college now that the value of a degree had to decline, which is why so many people who have degrees in the humanities find it difficult to get a job. And with the emergence of degrees catering to specific careers, people who might have found jobs with a general degree are being pushed out by people who have the more specific degree (an art degree vs a graphic design degree for example).

    And as a slightly random aside, my father, the engineer who went into that career because he didn’t like writing actually spends more time writing papers than he spends on anything else.

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  10. donna says

    So does my husband. But all my engineering students complained that they’d never *need* that writing class. Ha.

    I absolutely agree with you that the value of a college degree has declined–it’s been on a downward slope for the last two decades, I think. Ironically, what there is a huge demand for, at least here, are people with technical certifications and technical training in manufacturing. I just saw a report on the news the other night that there are about 2000 manufacturing jobs in my state (Maine) that employers can’t fill because they can’t find qualified people. And I think that trend is probably going to continue. Likewise with the general vs. specific degree–that’s even true in some of the sciences now, you know. My daughter is majoring not in Biology, a degree that is fairly worthless these days, but in biochemisty and microbiology and molecular/cell biology (she couldn’t decide–she’s kind of an overachiever, so yeah, triple major)–any of those would give her many options for future employment. A straight biology degree, though, not so much.

    I understand your mixed feelings. While I’ve always been employed when I’ve wanted to be, I’ve never really made a ton of money except when I worked as a technical writer, which was the most boring job I ever had. But I could support myself. And I confess that had my daughter wanted to do a humanities degree, I might have tried to talk her out of it. But I would have encouraged her to take as many of those classes as she could–and I did. And she found them both fascinating and, in the ways I talked about in my post, useful. Her writing skills are great and she learned how to synthesize and analyze and think outside the box: all useful for what she really wants to do, which is work with immunology and infectuous diseases.

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  11. says

    Where I work, you can’t get a job as an operator in the process areas without at least an associates degree–it’s a basic job requirement these days. Part of the reason for that is that working in manufacturing these days requires a good deal of technical knowledge beyond what you’d get in most high schools (unless you were in a very targeted vocational program). As environmental (and other) standards become more stringent, processes become more complicated and have to operate within narrower parameters and you need knowledgeable people.

    And I wish more engineers would pay attention in their composition classes. Some of the project write-ups I see make me want to cry.

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  12. donna says

    This is exactly what the owners and managers were saying on that news report–the machinary is SO complicated and high-tech now that a general high school vocational degree just doesn’t cut it. Our governor is a total ass, but the one thing he’s trying to do that I agree with is promote the technical colleges here. I spent too many years teaching students who really did not belong where they were at to not agree with that.

    And you want tears? Trying editing Ph.D. disserattions for Physics majors…

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  13. DrMM says

    I think part of the reason why Dad does so much writing is because he’s quite good at it so his co-workers push a lot of it his way. After all, his reports end up on the desk of the NRC (nuclear regulatory commission) and they are not nice when they’re unhappy with something.

    When I went back to school, I ended up working as a writing tutor (mostly for nursing students). Ever since, I’ve thought that the incredible emphasis on math and science education in public schools has really done students today a huge disservice. Most of those papers made no sense and/or had nothing to do with the actual assignment. What good does it do to have great math and science scores when you can’t communicate? In the struggle to compete with other countries, it seems like they’ve forgotten how important basic skills like writing are.

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  14. says

    “they can’t find qualified people”

    I see this complaint a lot in IT. What it translates to, every time I’ve looked, is, “can’t find saps who are willing to take entry-level wages for very aggressive “minimum” skills/experience requirements.”

    Just saw fresh examples this week:
    1) on LinkedIn,, an “entry-level” job that wanted experience in build automation and deployment, AND network administration, AND database administration.
    1) *in my own workgroup* — boss posted an “administrative” position that demands experience in all kinds of disparate things.

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  15. says

    That’s “administrative” as opposed to “engineering” — our group has senior engineers, engineers, and administrators, by title linked to decreasing pay levels and experience/cert expectations.

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  16. donna says

    I’m sure there’s some of that happening with manufacturing here, but I also know someone whose son struggled through four years of technical school and was recruited right out of there and into a very well-paying manufacturing job–salary in the mid 50′s, full benefits, paid tuition for additonal training. Not bad for a 22 year old kid. The technical colleges here are *booming* and their graduates are walking right into nice jobs that aren’t paying slave wages. But I’m sure it does happen. I’ve also seen jobs advertised as “entry-level” where they demand 3-5 years experience in the field in question. And oddly, now that I think of it, those tend to be computer-related, like you mention.

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  17. says

    Maybe it’s easier for managers/companies in computer-related fields to kid themselves about supply and demand, or something. I’m glad to hear that about the tech college graduatess’ employability.

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  18. donna says

    Standard line I used when teaching freshman comp: “You can have the greatest ideas ever, but if you can’t clearly express them, no one’s ever going to know what a genius you are.. That’s why you’re here.” Worked every time *grins*

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