Oh, the Humanities!

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I took five literature classes in college: one on Shakespeare, one on Tolstoy, and three on a bunch of other people. All of those works I read, understood, and could write about. But at that age, I was generally unable to experience much of their actual value: the gut-level impact that makes them worth reading in the first place. W. H. Auden once wrote that people should be banned from literary criticism until they turned thirty. But should we even study literature before we’re adults?

There seem to be a lot of reasons not to concentrate your undergraduate studies on literature. As an author’s account, literature presents truth through an inherently partial lens; but academic protocol demands a dry impartiality that prevents teachers from discussing it on its own terms. Without the help an impassioned teacher might have given, I could not appreciate most literature on my own: I simply hadn’t lived enough. And while I was learning—and not appreciating—Faulkner’s stylized take on the early-20th-century South, there was plenty of unexplored empirical truth lying around: the very basics of business, for example.

And yet, I don’t feel justified in wishing that I or other young students had studied literature less. Would someone please make the case for intensively studying literature at the high school and undergraduate level, taking into account the educational opportunity cost? Bonus points for classical allusions.

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