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Literary study involves reading poems, stories, plays, novels, and essays, thinking about them, discussing them, and writing about them. Due to an increase in the desire for practical skills, the American university has in recent years decided to emphasize business and technical education at the expense of the humanities. This decision stems from the assumption that the study of literature has little or no utilitarian value. We believe, however, that with the right instruction, the study of literature is a practical discipline. Furthermore, it cultivates other important abilities that make it an indispensable part of university education.
Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.
But literary study pays dividends far beyond the practical ones resulting from increased verbal ability. It is the provider of many other important intellectual gifts. Reading literature increases knowledge in an active, intellectually challenging way that other more passive activities, such as watching television cannot do. A thorough grounding in literature automatically provides knowledge of our literary heritage while at the same time increasing the student’s awareness of cultural values, history, sociology, psychology, and almost every branch of human knowledge.
None of these advantages, however, is the real reason most people choose to study literature. The most important gains achieved by reading literature are those of the imagination. Literary study expands our capacity to sympathize with other human beings, enhances our ability to see and imagine human complexity, and broadens our intellectual horizons by enlarging our power to experience life vicariously. It does these things so well, in fact, that medical schools around the country are modifying their curriculums to include the study of literature. It develops our skills for discerning aesthetic principles and deepens our ability to take pleasure in the written word. We live in an age that grossly and dangerously underestimates the power and importance of the imagination. To ignore it is to stifle the breath of the mind. Even the most practical kind of student can benefit from knowing something beyond his or her own professional field, and literary study provides the kind of imaginative human broadening that can prove very valuable in the long run. Some great thinkers of the last two hundred years (Mill, Freud, Schweitzer, Einstein) have argued passionately for the importance of literary study in preserving the human imagination. The American university must listen to these arguments. For while the practical arguments for studying literature are compelling, it is its power to broaden sympathies and stimulate imagination that makes its inclusion and emphasis in any university curriculum essential.