Recently there has been a lot of conversation about the value of the humanities. It seems that increasingly people have been questioning the value of disciplines like literature. If, as seems to be the popular perception, higher education exists primarily as institutions for job training and credentialing, what is the point of teaching literature? Reading Flaubert doesn’t train any job skills or increase anyone’s employability. And as the cost of higher education goes up, these seemingly irrelevant courses begin to just look like a frivolous expense ripe for cutting, at least from general education requirements. And, of course, the study of literature doesn’t generally lend itself well to machine-graded tests and large lectures, meaning teaching literature is largely unaffected by the efficiency gains technology might bring to higher ed, making its cost relative to other courses seem higher. So why teach literature, much less require a couple of literature courses of every student, as most universities now do?
Well, I tend to think that the study of literature is inherently valuable (although I admit I’m a bit biased there). The ability to analyze a text is a critical skill that is immediately transferable and applicable to many areas of life: a law, company memo, conversation with a boss or TV commercial can be picked apart and analyzed for meaning in the same way literature can. Indeed, the move to emphasize job training over the humanities and the analytical skills they endow is a little creepy to me; an attempt to turn higher education into an apparatus that produces workers with the skills to be productive but none of the analytical capacity to question. And the ability to write, which students learn in humanities courses, is a crucial communications skill that anyone with even a modicum of responsibility in the corporate world must have.
But those are the arguments already out there, and many people remain unconvinced. So I’d like to throw another idea about why literature is valuable into the ring. Continue reading