Why Teach Literature Now?

Brian Michael Murphy
December 2, 2013
Comments 4

Last week, I attended a session called “Another University is Possible–Right?” at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Washington, D.C. Since then, I’ve been ruminating on how the university has changed as of late and what it might look like ten years from now. My students now are different from those of ten years ago, when I first began writing syllabi and forcing young people to read, or pretend to read, the stories and poems that I love. They seem increasingly terrorized–not by terrorists, strangely enough–but by a mysterious, pervasive, and uncontrollable presence they call “the economy.” In their view, this force has devastated the careers, emotional lives, and dreams of their parents, siblings, friends, neighbors. So, they come to college hoping to get a job at the end of it. Some of them respond to the enormity of the current economic uncertainty with determination and a desire to maximize their time in college, to build all manner of skills, and to treat interactions with professors as worthwhile exercises that help prepare them for spending 10 hours per day in a professional environment. Others do not.

I teach required courses in literature to a variety of students, many of them engineering and business and economics majors, a few others from disciplines in the humanities, and every once in a while, an actual English major. But why do I do this? What’s the point of teaching literature now, to students who, often, are not interested in it? This is a question often posed by those who would like to cut off funding for humanities departments in higher education, or eliminate these departments altogether, purportedly to better prepare students to work in a “global economy.” While I do not agree with the objectives of the enemies of literature, I find their questions to be provocative and productive. Challenging questions about why I teach literature are akin to the ones I consistently ask my students to engage, questions that are no less difficult for having been asked for many centuries: Why am I here? What am I doing and why am I doing it? What is my vision for my future and the future of the world? How much of that vision have I invented, and how much of it have I inherited?

We teachers are sometimes the worst students, and thus are guilty of some of the deepest forms of hypocrisy. If I am to be effective, I believe I must ask myself the same questions I demand my students consider. Why am I teaching courses in the humanities? How do I convince myself that it is worthwhile? Does it make any difference in the lives of my students? How do I know when I’ve done it well? Is it possible that the enemies of literature, and of the humanities more broadly, are right? That the world has changed, and that we do not need to read Shakespeare, Hurston, Lao Tzu, or that we, at least, do not need to do so in university classrooms?

These are good questions to ask ourselves, we who are paid to read stories and write and talk about them. We should ask and answer the question, “What, precisely, am I accomplishing?” not because it will boost our perceived value as academic-corporate laborers (though it will), but because it might just help us to become better teachers. I’ve found it to be common, amongst the defenders of literature I’ve encountered, to lump in more stringent forms of teaching assessment with the more disturbing trends in the bureaucratization and privatization of the university–CEOs taking the place of presidents, ridiculously expensive master plans and renovation projects, a dramatic decrease in lines for tenure-track faculty, the pepper-spraying and brutalization of students peacefully protesting tuition hikes to support all this.

But being required to demonstrate your teaching effectiveness is not simply one more symptom of a sick institution. I have now spent over a decade studying literature, and other subjects across the humanities, and I think it is a timely development, one that, if we can see it as an opportunity, might reinvigorate many of us, and remind us of what the enemies of literature habitually forget–that college classrooms are great places for discovering what you want to do with your life, what you care about. They are not, and will never entirely be, places to gain the skill set needed to perform a job in a field that might or might not exist when you graduate. Universities should be well-supported environments for being surprised by the depths of yourself, to be taken aback and delighted by the fact that you actually do love Elizabethan poetry, but you did not know it until you took a class with Dr. David Summers.

The benefits of teaching literature to students of every major are obvious to anyone who really cares to see these benefits, and will remain invisible to anyone who does not want to see them, anyone who is determined to believe that the humanities are a vestigial limb of the university. My claim here, I admit, is as unsatisfactory as it is true. Not all educational achievements can be quantified on paper. Unfortunately, this fact too often becomes an excuse deployed by sloppy teachers who do not want to build their skills and do the work of making clear to their students, colleagues, supervisors, and to themselves, the aims and objectives–the point–of what they do in the classroom. Nonetheless, we teachers of literature should continue to state this truth, even as we try to find ways to express that which we normally relegate to the inexpressible, to articulate the kinds of transformation that take place in our classrooms, rather than simply saying, as I have often said, that much of that transformation is intangible, unquantifiable, difficult or impossible to measure.

If a generation teaches its children to hold economic security as the supreme value, then the value of literature will, objectively, according to that value structure, evaporate into thin air. This says nothing about literature and everything about the manufactured and inherited fears of a generation of people who have lived their entire adolescence and young adult lives after 9/11, after the commencement of the War on Terror, after the economic collapse and latest upward redistribution of wealth that kick-started in 2008. Not so ironically, it is literature–that which is under threat– that can best help us to see our way clear through the ruses of corporate and government leaders who make it their life’s work to convince us that human potential is now more limited than it ever was before, that it can only and best be expressed through a blind dedication to sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As great literature teaches us in ways that statistics cannot, these messages issuing from the power-addicted do not change much over time: we are so endangered militarily, ideologically, or economically, they say, that we do not have the luxury of contemplating timeless truths or examining the skeletal structures of our prejudices and the shallow, long genealogies of our hatred. We do not have time to ask great, basic literary questions: What disavowed parts of my personality does the villain in the story reflect? What flaws do I share with the hero? If change is the only constant, what power does the story say I have in shaping the changes–in myself, in this society–that are to come?

Great works of literature are the result of the hard labor of self-examination carried out to a degree that most of us will never approach, not because we must spend all our time barely surviving in this brutal economy, but because of the sheer courage such self-examination requires. No matter how much the world or “the economy” changes, the Greeks will still be right. The geniuses of the Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance will still be right. We English majors who went on to grad school and then became professors sometimes forget that the first, inestimable value of the self-examination provoked by literature is not that it facilitates the political project of critiquing mass culture or deconstructing destructive popular ideologies. Self-examination is a most important skill because it is a condition of possibility for human love; it is the practice of seeing one’s self through other eyes and developing empathy for both that other and that self it looks upon.

It is precisely because the economy, and our fear of it, has become what it has become in the minds of the next generation, that we need literature now more than ever to remind us of perpetual cycles bigger than economic boom and bust, cycles that actually are natural, in which humans across all cultures and all time periods have found ways, albeit imperfectly, to care for others when all worldly wisdom said it would be wiser to care only for self.

4 thoughts on “Why Teach Literature Now?

  1. Thanks for the comment. Even in the ten years that I have been teaching, I have seen a shift in the way students approach their time in the university. The feelings of fear about economic insecurity and competing in a “global economy” are rampant in a way that they didn’t used to be (at least in the classrooms of the Midwestern US, where I have taught). I hope that the coming generations can find spaces to ask and answer the great questions of life, even if universities become completely unhinged, set adrift from their foundational educational purposes, completely structured around “training” and preparing students for lives as corporate workers.

  2. I enjoyed the article. As a soon-to-retire professor, though, I have to confess that I am glad to be leaving the university behind. Students are not interested in the humanities because they have been actively conditioned to eschew anything that does not get them either instant financial gratification, practical skills or other “training,” Soon there will be no education, just training, and the business community will be holding the purse strings as they promote corporate culture. Three cheers for Brian Murphy, and I hope his guarded optimism proves correct.

  3. I work in a research institute in the CUNY system that provides professional development services to K-12 teachers and direct services to 600 adult learners per year, most of whom are new to the U.S. We study our impact, using perspectives and methods that draw on the humanities and social sciences. The state of public education in NYC is in a shambles. With the alleged new standards and constraining assessments of both students and teachers, they are under seize and even terrorized. It was heartening to read Murphy’s piece. From our view, a question pervades the urban educational atmospherics: “Another Education is Possible-Right?” Wrong, not if such an education is defined in terms of objectives intended to provide students with a set of skills matched to theoretical occupations…not if expected outcomes are based on specious and narrowly conceived ideas about the meaning of education, I am counting on humanists and proponents of the liberal arts to continue to raise their voices now and until we are satisfied that the rhetorical and political nonsense in the public sphere has really stopped. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  4. Reply to Brian Murphy. Right Human Relations require each of us to become World Citizens and accept our individual responsibility to help develop this love for all humanity,and this is not the goal of present day education, which teaches selfishness, aggression and competition in our misdirected society. Real truths come from the Ageless Wisdom preserved for us by the Avatars of this planet.

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