Once upon a time, at my two-year college, all students were required to take a literature course in order to graduate. They could choose American, British, or world literature, but they had to pick one.
That mandate was scrapped a few years ago, and lit courses got lumped into a broad “humanities and fine arts” requirement — called “Area C” — of our gen-ed curriculum. Area C also includes things like philosophy, religion, and film. Unsurprisingly, one immediate result was that enrollments began to decline in literature, which led to fewer sections being offered. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to watch movies rather than read Molière, Melville, or Milton?
This new reality puts English faculty in the uncomfortable position of having to advocate for something that, until recently, had simply been considered a normal part of going to college. We’re also basically competing against our colleagues in other humanities departments, which, frankly, feels a bit awkward. Clearly, students also benefit from studying philosophy, religion, film, and the arts.
So we’ve had to do a lot of hard thinking about why students should take a literature course — something we once took for granted. What exactly is its value, as opposed to courses in other humanities fields (since we’re being forced to compete here)? And how do those of us in the English department articulate that value to students?
Fortunately, and perhaps a bit unfairly, we have the perfect platform for doing so: our first-year rhetoric and composition courses. In those required courses, we often use literary works as a basis for discussion and essay assignments. I have a captive audience in my writing courses, and that’s where I make the argument — without disparaging other disciplines — that students should seriously consider fulfilling their Area C requirement by taking a lit course.
Here's what I tell them:
The study of literature incorporates many other disciplines. It certainly is valuable to learn about philosophy and religion. But the study of literature is the study of philosophy and religion. And politics. And history. And the arts. Not to mention gender, race, class, and a whole host of other topics that are both fascinating and relevant. In that sense, literature is the broadest and most encompassing of the humanities.
And if you like film — well, that’s actually a branch of literary studies. Many English professors already incorporate films into our lit-survey courses, including movies like Chinatown and The Color Purple, and screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.
Studying literary texts is one of the best ways to develop vital analytical and critical-thinking skills. According to employer surveys, the biggest complaint about recent college graduates is that they’re incapable of thinking for themselves. I wonder: Could that be related to the demise of the sophomore-level, lit-survey requirement at colleges and universities across the country?
It’s true that many college courses teach, or should teach, critical-thinking skills. However, two things make literature special if not unique in that regard. First, most students naturally struggle to understand literary works. Grappling with concepts they find difficult, foreign, or esoteric forces them to employ their mental faculties with a focus and intensity they may not be accustomed to.
Moreover, students know from experience that meaning is often not readily accessible in a literary work, so they are already predisposed to dig a little deeper — to analyze. With another type of text, such as a nonfiction book or essay, students might assume the meaning is right on the surface. And although they may well be wrong, that assumption often prevents them from taking their analysis any further.
The foremost value of studying literature lies in the perspective it provides. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to books as “the mind of the past.” I often tell my students that, whereas history is a record of what people did, literature is a record of what they were thinking at the time. As we formulate our own world views, it is vitally important to understand what the people who came before us have thought, and how those ideas worked out.
In that sense, literature is always relevant, whether written 10, 50 or 500 years ago. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about studying literature, for me, is learning just how little people have changed, regardless of when or where they lived. That revelation, in turn, gives us a renewed appreciation for our common humanity, not only across cultures but across time. To see that dynamic in action, just try introducing John Donne’s “The Flea” (1633) or Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (1681) to a class of 19-year-olds who basically (like every generation) think they invented love and sex.
Another example: One of the works we always read in my survey course on American literature is Christopher Columbus’s “Letter to Luis de Santangel.” This fall semester, we happened to encounter that text just a few days after a monument to Columbus was vandalized in Baltimore. Reading Columbus’s own words helped students understand why some might believe those actions justifiable, even necessary — even if they didn’t necessarily agree.
A wonderful conversation ensued, in which we discussed the question of historical morality: Can we judge people from the past based on our modern-day standards? We also talked about issues like racism, discrimination, and free speech. And although they expressed a wide range of opinions, students were civil and respectful of each other, and I think everyone took away something valuable from the experience. I’m sure those kinds of class discussions can take place in other disciplines, but they happen routinely in literature classes, with or without our prompting.
Those are all good reasons for taking a formal literature course, reasons that would resonate if we would just go to the trouble of articulating them. That’s not something we’re accustomed to doing; in the past, we may have taken it for granted that those students would simply show up in our lit courses.
Apparently, those days are gone. Today’s students have more choices than ever. And although some might be primarily concerned with which courses are easiest, others want to know which courses will help the most. I believe we can make a good case that one answer is literature. If we want our lit courses to continue to be viable, we need to be making that case, loudly, whenever and wherever we can.