Monday, November 5, 2012

Why Teach Literature?

I would like to pose a question to you all. Why teach literature? Why learn about Shakespeare and Milton? Why read works that were written hundreds of years ago by authors long dead and often forgotten?

As someone planning to become a professor of literature, I personally think it is very important to not only perserve but to teach literature. In fact I would say, without hesitation, that teaching literature is every bit as important as teaching math and science. Unfortunately many do not agree.

Why are science and math treated as the most important? Society claims it is because they work towards a better tomorrow (what good are we English majors anyway, locked up in our libraries all day?), in reality however math and science are viewed more favorably because they tend to lead to bigger pay checks.

I have no way to argue that. You're right. If you major in biology or chemistry, or engineering you are statistically going to make more money than me and my English degree. But that does not make it a more important or legitimate field of study.

So then let us consider the justification for rating science and math as more valid than literature; people who major in math or science will enter fields that work towards a better tomorrow. They will become engineers and doctors and surgeons and make a difference in the world. That's what its all about isn't it?

I am a writer. I am a double English Language Literature and History major with a minor in Writing. I plan on getting my PhD in English Literature and teaching literature at the college level. I dream of writing books that will survive. Why? Because it matters. Because it does make a difference and because that difference is important.

Anyone can pick up a history book and read about The Great Depression, World War II, the Apartheid, you can learn dates and names and important events, but you will not learn about the people who lived it. You will not be given more than a glimpse into what it was like to experience those historical periods and what little glimpse you are given is written by the victor. This is where the beauty of literature comes into play.

Through literature we can trace the history of the human condition. Through common literary themes we can gain an understanding of the people who lived through what we can only read about. More importantly, we can gain an understanding of all the people who lived it rather than only those who came out on top. Literature is our window into the life of a woman living in Palestine, a Jewish family imprisoned in Nazi Germany, a black man in South Africa during the Apartheid. Literature is history, our history, everyone's history. Literature is what reminds us that people living today are not so very different from people who lived hundreds of years ago.

Literature gives a voice to the voiceless and empowerment to the oppressed; why else would the Nazi party have burned books written by people with opposing views? Words are powerful, and it deeply saddens me to look around and find myself living in a world where so many people have forgotten that.

I believe what I study is just as important as what my biopsychology major boyfriend is studying, and I'm lucky enough to have found someone who recognizes and agrees with that. I am very passionate about what I do. I hope to open people's eyes to the value of language and literature. I am writing history. I am connecting with human beings who lived before the country I live in was even discovered. I spend my time interacting with some of the greatest minds who ever lived and who now live only within the pages of my books. I seek to move forward by remembering where we have already been. I believe in the power of language.


  1. There is no doubt--literature speaks to us in a way history books don't. In a way nothing else can. :)

  2. A wonderful analysis (you'll forgive the science terminology) on the value of literature. It's the easiest and most dangerous thing in the world not to question. Teaching literature to our children gives them the skills to reflect on what they read, to seek meaning in the work of others, to interpret and hone their own minds. It empowers them and it broadens their perceptions of our world and the myriad things it contains, when travel may be beyond their means.
    Perhaps if more people in history had learned this- to experience the opinions and stories of others- we might not be in the mess we're in!
    Ross (definite science major type (medicine))