Thinking back to high school, it was not uncommon for students to ask “Why do we have to learn this? When am I ever going to use it?”
It’s not an unfair question. In Ontario, every university degree demands a grade twelve university level English credit as a pre-requisite. If you are planning on studying mathematics, what’s the point in reading Shakespeare? How do the works of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen assist someone who plans on spending their whole lives working in a lab? Or a cubicle?
If you ask parents or random people, many of them will give answers along the lines of:
- To learn how to read and write properly
- Because knowledge of the classics is a sign of higher learning and being able to discuss them makes you appear educated and well-rounded which can making you appear to be a better employee.
- To understand cultural references.
The problem with these assumptions is that they don’t stand up on examination. The assumption is that by high school, most students should already be able to read and write. The classes are not set up to facilitate learning those skills if you don’t already possess them. The kind of writing done in classes, while useful practice, is different from the type of writing expected for science journal articles or the type of writing required by most professions out there. So what is the point? Why is literature so essential that it is a universal prerequisite?
The answer is that the study of literature isn’t just about the text itself, though it can play a role. The text can be important in helping students broaden their understanding of history, in exposing them to different cultures and experiences, both of which are useful for expanding a person’s mind. Reading stories from various perspectives can give us insight into views that aren’t our own. It gives people the opportunity to look into the psyche and mind of people and communities different than their own.
Literature can make is possible for a person to experience situations that they have no way of personally living. By reading works written from other points of view, a Christian can learn what it is like to grow up Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim country. A man can gain greater insight into what it is like to be a woman or a non-binary person.
The real purpose of the study of literature however, is that more than anything it is the study of human nature and society. It is to teach students how to criticize and understand their own world and societies beyond just what they see on the surface. It is about teaching students how to think and not about what to think.
The study of literature involves literary criticism – examining stories through various lenses in order to examine deeper and hidden meanings. Literary criticism teaches us to look at situations, stories, and characters not just as standalone pieces but as part of a greater context.
In studying a work, we study the culture that the work was written in. We look at what is said and how it is said in context of what else was going on at the time, and from there we look at what is being said in addition to what is on the page.
We look at something like Lord of the Rings, for example, and study how it was written in a time of massive industrial growth. We learn about Tolkien’s environmentalism and suddenly we begin to see that it is more than just a story about hobbits and elves destroying a ring, and instead we can see it as a metaphorical battle between industrialization and environment. It is a warning about the cost of progress without consideration for the possible consequences.
We look at 1984 and see a warning about unrestricted authoritarianism and the ways in which governments use language to direct perception.
Historical and cultural context can give us a greater understanding of characters actions. Imagine for example a work written during the Romantics, where a female character appears in a scene wearing pants and a jacket. To the modern reader that might not seem out of the ordinary, however, in the context of the time it was written, we can see how the author uses the appearance to convey that the character is rebellious, or a free spirit, or contrarian.
Understanding the impact of history and culture on how actions and words are perceived help us understand how those same ideas play a role in our own world. We can use that same critical thinking to understand our own world and how those same contexts affect our own understanding of the events around us. It is meant to teach us how to look at the stories around us, like those we see on the news, and view them as most than just detached events but as part of a greater context.
It gives us the tools to begin to understand why, for example, there is such an uproar among black people over the shooting deaths of black folk by police. It is tempting to look at each such occurrence as being a one-time thing, the work of an individual in a unique situation. When we apply the same criticism to the situation as we would to a literary representation of such an event, we can begin to see a single event as part of a greater pattern. When we look at it in the context of history, we begin to see how authoritarian violence has been used throughout history to keep certain people “in their place.” About how it isn’t just a single incident but one of many very similar incidents that suggest a deeper problem.
We learn how to think about things in a cultural context by studying “classic” literature because it is far enough removed from our own experience to make it easier to process and absorb without having to deal with the emotional conflict of interest of making people view their own complicity in existing oppression. It is easier to talk about feminist critiques of a time removed from our own and to get people opposed to the idea of feminism to engage with those critiques, when it is first presented as being applicable to something other than our own lives. Moreover, because of the fact that it took place longer ago, we have a greater ability to view the cultural context and impact than we do for things taking place in our own time – where the impact may still be in the process of developing.
Literature acts as a tool to teach students how to understand how word choice and actions can have broader meanings and implications that just the superficial. By learning why a character uses a specific word in a specific situation, we can see how words exist within a context greater than just their literal definition. We can begin to understand how words can be used as a dogwhistle to let others know your politics and affiliations, even when the conversation is about something completely unrelated. We learn to understand how those same words, when used unknowingly, can still have the same impact regardless of the intention of the person speaking.
This is especially the case where we talk about “Death of the Author” – a literary concept which states that the authors personal intent doesn’t matter, what does is the result.
In addition to cultural and historical context, students also learn to evaluate literature through the context of sociological influence. Regardless of whether the story takes place in this world, or one of the author’s invention, we can look at the way that sociology effects the character and their development.
We can look at how Katniss growing up in extreme poverty, for example, influences how she sees the parties and extravagances of the Capital. We can understand how someone who has known extreme hunger and come close to starving to death will feel negatively predisposed to people who eat food to excess or waste it.
We can look at how an author uses race to make broader statements on society and how we treat certain people. How sociological factors can impact the different ways that a character sees and feels about different events, words, and so forth. We gain a deeper understanding in the ways that various factors can influence how a person responds to different stimuli.
What’s more, we can also do the reverse. We can use literature to gain a greater understanding of the culture in which it was produced. If we look at how various authors in a given time period treat issues of race, economics, power, gender, sexuality, and so forth, we can gain a greater understanding of the psyches of people living in those times.
Learning how to make those extrapolations from works of literature in order to gain understanding of a society and culture, in turn allows us to use modern day media to gain a greater understanding of the world we currently live in.
By looking at how different media represent race, gender, etc. we can gain a deeper understanding of unstated social attitudes. By looking at how disability is treated in movies for example, we can see what our society really thinks about disability and the disabled. We can begin to see how certain words, phrases, and so forth are social dogwhistles, even when people are not consciously aware of this fact.
The study of literature is about developing a person’s ability to question the very world around them. To look at how people and groups try to influence us, and ask ourselves why? To develop the skills and tools necessary to apply critical analysis to the world around us and gain a greater understanding of who we are: as individuals, as a group, as a society, and so on.