At Chronicle Vitae, Rob Jenkins has written about the ways he tries to sell students on taking literature courses. I quibble with the idea of literature as “a record” of what people thought: while the ideals, lifestyles, and assumptions of a time can be read into and with a work of literature, the connection is not straightforward enough to call a literary text a record of historical thought. It is within this quibble that much of the value of a literature course can be found for those students who may never pursue literary studies again: these courses help students develop their abilities to understand how a story or other expression is designed to act upon them, to understand what is shown, what is hidden, and what lies somewhere in between.
I am not talking only about a hermeneutics of suspicion: I am talking, too, about how we understand the relationship between teller and told, between creator and society. Practicing thinking about these questions will allow students to make better future judgments not only about texts that already exist but also about those that we cannot yet anticipate. How do we think about a politician’s narrative or about a rambling monologue from a guy at the pub? How do we think about the uses of poetry by the State?
For my students in the Marshall Islands, the role of literature in cultural survival is also urgent. It may not seem to be so important for the vast majority of American college students. However, when we consider the survival of marginalized subcultures, the importance becomes greater. There is also the question of how the perspective of the strange or marginalized individual on society survives, which I think is how I got started with poetry and other forms in the first place. (The line between literary studies and creative writing has never been especially bright or wide for me.)
Sometimes it seems frustratingly utilitarian to have to justify the value of literature courses, but as long as we refuse to reduce it to “employable skills,” we are doing both ourselves and our students a service. Remembering why we do what we do can only make use more careful thinkers and writers.