Sunday, September 6, 2009

Literature-- Why do we bother?

Not that I don't love Frank's math videos, but it seems time to get some discussion going about non-math topics. So, what about literature? Why do we bother with it? What makes a classic a classic? And why should we read classics at all?

One of my students recently raised this issue and I believe it is an important one-- central in fact to the role of humanities education in this century. Most "great" literature is so far removed from our lives in the 21st century as to be almost in another galaxy. Those of us who teach literature talk about relating it to our students' lives and those students may even tell us that they learned a lot from a text they read. But what do we actually learn about our own lives when we read "classics"? Why is it "good for us" to read such literature? Why does having that kind of background still make people consider us more educated?

In other words, what would we actually lose out on, if we just started studying and/or teaching books we enjoy rather than those works that others have stamped as works of great literature? How many of us actually enjoy the classics and would pick them up to read on our own, without being required to read them for a class assignment? To get specific here, how many of you read Shakespeare before you go to sleep or on a plane trip? Beowulf? Steinbeck, maybe?


Hercules said...

I think that the pertinence of a classic, is the very thing you brought up Dr. Donovan: its removal from the mundane. The language and setting in a classic naturally distance it from our daily routine so that we may experience the book with less of ourselves, and can learn more from it. We become so wrapped up in our existence, in ourselves that reading literature from another time or place gives us a reference point to examine our own lives from.

Jynne said...

I second Hercules on this, but I would also add that to read any "great" literature is to experience (even as a sample) a coherent and succinct package of a particular time period, an attitude, a geography we wouldn't otherwise know. When I read Jane Austen, I get to see just how different the dating world was in late 18th Century Britain, but also how much it has not changed. Isn't that the goal of the Humanities branch of education: to illuminate how we've changed while accentuating the constancy and similarities.
And, yes, I do read Beowulf for fun; you can check my facebook for proof, but it is the best book to read while sitting by a lake waiting for some poor unsuspecting fish to bite at the line (and then pretend it's Grendel's mother!)

JParke32 said...

I will have to admit that even as an honors student in high school (12 years ago), I opted to read Vonnegut. The only reason I read his work was because I overheard an instructor arguing that she was not allowed to teach his readings.

After reading his work, I was informed, a little enlightened and often curious with many questions. However, years later after some life experience, I really appreciate his writings.

So, for me, the classics are neccessary to learn so that we can begin to comprehend the progression (or degression) of our social systems.