Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Value Of Literature In An Education

"How will a class in English Literature help me land a job?" is a question I've heard time and time again, from friends attending university. My answer is always the same, "It's not, nor is it supposed to."

The point of literature, in education is to expose readers to new ideas, and new ways of thinking about something. Those merely seeking training for a job can attend an inexpensive trade school. One attends a university to obtain a well rounded education, and improve one's mind and understanding of the world.

I've believed this since I graduated, with a degree in psychology, back in '94. Even though I majored in a "soft science," I made a point to take as much philosophy, history, literature, and creative writing as I could. At the time, and for years afterward, I patted myself on the back for having obtained such a well rounded education. Yet, recently it's become clear to me just how many gaps there are in my literary repertoire.

Somehow, I maintained honor roll worthy grades through high school, and graduated from university with a B average, without having to read A Tale Of Two Cities, Les Misérables, As I Lay Dying, The Jungle, The Dead, A Moveable Feast, and a number of other important works. Before you shrug and say, "They're just stories," rest assured they're more than that. Some of these, though fictional, are glimpses into the customs and beliefs of people in the midst of history. Others are inspections of segments of life, which can aid the reader in putting personal and social issues into perspective.

Jarvis Lorry and Madame Defarge are, of course, fictional characters. However, as A Tale Of Two Cities unfolds, we come to understand the level of hypocrisy and legalized barbarity which sparked the French Revolution. Likewise, the hounding of Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, by Inspector Javert, over a loaf of bread allows readers to understand the necessity of waging the June Rebellion in order to thwart such a grotesque level of institutionalized cruelty. While key events, such as battles and shifts in power, were sufficiently documented, it's only through works of literature that these moments in history are given human faces.

Not all good books are about understanding historical big pictures though. Faulkner shows us the events surrounding Addie Bundren's death in order to examine the various reactions people have to the death of someone close. Rather than focusing on life's emotional issues, Sinclair used The Jungle to call attention to health and safety issues within the meat packing industry, which had largely been ignored before the book's release. In both cases, readers are challenged to reassess matters, which many people typically avoid thinking about, because they're too unpleasant to look at directly.

Frankly, I'm more than a bit irked to have taken as much literature and history as I have, without having been exposed to such works. It's never too late though. This year, I've made a point to devour such classics. Whether or not the endeavor will improve my writing remains to be seen. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect it will improve my mind and fill a few of the gaps in my catalog of knowledge.


Those of you who read this entry between 08/17/11 & 08/19/11 will notice some major editing has taken place. It just goes to show, I should NEVER post a first draft.


  1. Excellent Point! I feel my reading has helped me expand myself more then any skill training I have had. Being well read is a grand thing indeed!

  2. Magikbroom71: I'd bet good money you're right. Reading can help people learn about and evaluate topics pretty much across the board.