Have you ever heard the short song “What Do You Do with a BA in English?”
What do you do with a B.A. in English, / What is my life going to be? / Four years of college and plenty of knowledge, / Have earned me this useless degree. / I can’t pay the bills yet, / ‘Cause I have no skills yet, / The world is a big scary place. / But somehow I can’t shake / The feeling I might make / A difference / To the human race.
One of my friends VERY helpfully shared this song with me during my undergraduate years. (In his defense, I had drawn a picture of him as a bottle of maple syrup… It’s a long story.) I can laugh: a BA in English can indeed be useless, based on the student’s motivation and future plans. But I do think the song reflects an overall attitude toward English Literature in our culture.
I have an MA in English Literature, and I have taught for ten years now. Over the years, I’ve come across, shall we say, more than a handful people who dismiss reading books—especially fiction—as an extracurricular pastime that a particular breed of nerd chooses. “To each his own,” is the attitude, “but that’s really not necessary for everyday life.”
Whereas my classmates and I used to ask (and please read this in an insolent teenage voice) “When are we ever going to USE this?” in Algebra class, now our STEM-job-driven society asks that same question of A Tale of Two Cities.
Any time I encounter this attitude, I compose impassioned speeches–which I mouth while I wash dishes, but never actually deliver. In them, I argue that a lack of knowledge about how to read and interpret literature has a negative effect on people’s very well-being and—oh I go there—even harms society as a whole.
So here is at least part of my Apology for Literature—with “Apology” here being used in the older sense of “Defense.” Though I know there are other ways of arguing for the necessity of reading, I defend it here from my own perspective: why I personally am so passionate about my discipline.
(Note: I am not addressing illiteracy here; rather, my target is people who are fully capable of reading but just don’t see the point.)
ENGLISH EDUCATION: THE NEGLECTED ANTIDOTE FOR YOUR WELL-BEING AND THE HEALTH OF SOCIETY
Off the top of my head, I can think of four reasons why you and I personally need to be reading books.
Literature challenges our chronological snobbery. The modern West tends to assume superiority over every other culture and time. According to us, we’re enlightened, able to disparage and dismiss the people who came before us–ignoring their virtues because of their flaws.
Let it be known that this idea of our superiority is only opinion. The “assumption is that [our] point of view is right at least partly because it is what is happening. It is the ‘next thing’, and in the mythology of progress this next thing is, by definition, a good thing” (Howard 98).
Later does not necessarily equal better: just ask the Anglo-Saxons after the Romans pulled outta Great Britain. As I’ve argued before from the thoughts of C. S. Lewis, our era is just like every other era: we are very strong in some good things (diversity, for one); we are very weak in others (I’d argue that courage is one).
Part of our job on this earth is to learn what it means to be human. In order to do that, we cannot rely on our own tiny subjective experience. There are thousands of years of humanity that have come before us, and they have preserved for us their most precious values in literature. We have much to criticize about them, as the most articulate and noble among them would have much to criticize about us. But we must humble ourselves and learn from them, too.
Stories DO hack your brain, whether they’re books or not. If you watch Netflix assuming that you are merely taking in some entertainment, you are in a precarious place. If you watch The Office or Star Trek or Wreck It Ralph or ANY media, it is trying subtly to convince you that a certain worldview is correct. This worldview transmission is not necessarily wrong—it’s what stories do—but you need to be aware, and you need to be able to parse out what exactly that worldview is. Learning about themes, symbols, and how authors communicate their morals lets us be intelligent, responsible consumers. We’re so preoccupied with what’s in our food these days; we should give due diligence to what’s nourishing our minds and souls, as well.
Literature teaches empathy. We can all agree that our society is increasingly polarized. Pridefully assuming our own opinion is right/the only way is all too common, and too many people feel more than justified in calling “the other side” idiots.
One purpose of literature is to broaden our minds, to enter into other minds from other times and places: both the characters’ minds, and the authors’. This not only gives us a better understanding of the world around us, because not everyone thinks just like me personally, but it also gives us empathy for struggles that are not our own. To function well and peaceably in this world, we must be able to learn, to some degree, to be able to understand others. Literature is one of the deepest dives we can take into such a task.
But literature trains us in empathy in another way: the possibility of multiple interpretations of a text.
I’ll be honest. When I was in high school, it bothered me that there wasn’t just one “right answer” to a text. I wanted an interpretation to be black and white, obviously right or wrong. “Is Beowulf at fault for the ending or not? JUST TELL ME.” I had yet to see just how this tendency of literature, to refuse easy answers, reflected many of life’s issues: they’re complex.
Now for most people, the ending of Beowulf is not exactly a hot-button issue. But trying to figure it out trains us for the hot-button issues: it ideally develops the ability to see that there can be valid evidence for each side of a debated topic. It helps us learn to weigh and appropriately value evidence for different claims.
In “real” issues, straw-manning and ad hominem increase anger without moving toward a solution. We must develop the ability to look honestly at “the other side’s” arguments in order to engage them, rather than just screaming “LIAR” at them. Debating literature develops those skills.
To borrow from Sidney, literature is “a speaking picture with this end—to teach and delight.” By presenting us with pictures of vice and virtue—pictures we are called upon to love, hate, approve of, wrinkle noses at, question, test, and challenge—literature is an Ethics course in disguise. Rightly done, literature has the power to help us love what is good and hate what is evil. Wrongly used, like Saruman’s Voice, books hold immense yet subtle power to sway our hearts from the right path. This is a power to be approached humbly, and we must learn how.
WHY (TAKEN) SO UNSERIOUS?
So English Literature itself doesn’t deserve to be valued as “majoring in an extracurricular activity.” It is necessary for learning how to evaluate claims and understand others and the world. However, I have a few theories about how we English teachers have sometimes sabotaged ourselves, adding to the bad rep of English Literature rather than showing it to be the valuable asset it is. I’ll share those next week.
Howard, Thomas. C. S. Lewis: Man of Letters. Ignatius, 1987.