Your sister texts you that her daughter’s theater class has been cancelled because of budgetary cutbacks. A colleague from King’s College London writes that his position in Italian Renaissance Literature will be “made redundant” due to low enrollments.
Your colleague in German mutters his concerns about the future of his department.
If you don’t know how to respond to these situations, relax, you aren’t alone. Most of us in literary studies haven’t thought about what makes our profession unique. We don’t know how to explain to our own students—let alone a school principal or university administrator—the importance of literature. Who, me, think about literary relevance? Our TAs will do that for us!
If pushed, many of us could provide two reasons why students should take literature at university: writing and diversity. Students should come to our classes because they can become better writers. Secondly, they gain a more meaningful understanding of the world if they read works by Louise Erdrich and Toni Morrison, Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk.
The first reason, when you think of it, can be met by other departments in the Humanities and by the TA’s who usually teach entry-level English courses. Students don’t have to come to language departments for this. The second reason, though very noble, seems easy and predictable. Can’t we think anything beyond this? Students can learn about Otherness in Anthropology, Sociology, or Philosophy. Why should they necessarily come to classes in literature?
To persuade our students to come to our classes, to convince administrators to keep literature and art on the books, we have to tell them what makes literature special in society. What does it do for us? How does it relate to our lives? How would we be affected, if literature were to disappear?
(I know those critics who want to collapse literature into art, art into culture, and culture into society, will find these questions quaint if not irrelevant. I believe in the relative autonomy of literature, art, and culture. I feel that we are better off if we keep literature separate but in touch with other domains and conscious of its position in society.)
Colleagues from math to psychology, from law to social work, may find our Hamlet-like wavering about our self-worth comical, if not pathetic.We have not reflected seriously enough about our mission at the university and have not considered the worth of art and literature in our teaching and for society at large.
In fact, we study art and literature without thinking much about their value, as if value were a dirty word. We expect our students somehow to discover this worth themselves. We may be embarrassed to express excitement about beauty. Or perhaps we fear being labeled essentialists, guilty of reifying art and culture. Could there be a worse charge today?
We shy away, for instance, from describing the aesthetic experience at the center of what we do. Indeed, if there has ever been a concept in the academy that has been trampled on, kicked, punched, and buried, it is the idea that literature (and art in general) may actually have a value in itself beyond instrumentalist reasons of writing improvement or multicultural enhancement.
In short, we have not considered the pleasure people find in fiction—in reading stories and in stepping from illusion to reality and vice versa. And we have not tied this pleasure to an ethics of literary study. While we have rightly jettisoned the inherited justifications of literary scholarship (that literature makes us into better human beings), we have not replaced them with rationales of our own making. In failing to do so, we have abandoned students at all levels of education to narrow careerist concerns or instrumentalist discourses about self-fashioning. But we refuse to tell them how literary study can aid in the creation of self.
Ok. We no longer believe that literature contains timeless truths, that its lessons are valid for all people at all times, that it allows us to touch our very humanity. But then what do we believe? What does literature do? Why do we study it? Why should students takeour classes? What will you tell your niece’s principal about that cancelled theater class?