Why read literature? “Literature helps us see the big picture!”

A professor at Seokyeong University in Seoul, South Korea, leads us through the shadow of non-literature majors approaching literature and language as a means to a brighter end.

source: flickr/redbanshee/

“The best way to think about reality,
I had decided, was to get as far away
from it as possible…”

  <Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle>

Steven Justice │ stevejustice1@gmail.com

In a world constantly concerned with economic instability and the importance of employability, the above quote from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, is at odds with the masses. Reality has become all too important. Studying is a means to an end rather than an effort to improve the mind or enlighten the soul. Time spent studying the humanities is a waste when students could be harnessing a narrowly defined vocational skill.

“I ask my students why they are here to study literature…”

This is something I see first-hand at my university. On the opening day of my literature classes, I ask my students why they are here. “To improve our English and therefore enhance our chances of getting a good job,” they answer uniformly.

I am the only member of faculty in my department who teaches literature where all my students major in accounting. But really, I press them, what is the point of an accounting major studying literature? The real world looms large for these students in their final year of university. They need to get a job and they know it won’t come easy in today’s market.  I even question myself sometimes, how will studying literature help them?

Literature teaches us to ask questions. Dystopian classics such as 1984 by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury force readers to consider issues that are relevant to the lives they live, but have perhaps never thought of before. Graduates are often ejected into a world they do not fully understand and are not prepared for, much as Winston discovered when he went in search of the truth in 1984.

For years, students have been told that getting a degree is the only path to a good job but more and more these days, just having a degree is not enough. Students need to be able to comprehend the issues that face them; to be able to analyse them in depth and see what is really happening as opposed to blindly following what they are told is good for them. Too few people are concerned with the big picture. Bradbury makes the point very well in his novel, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.”

“The real world demands a lot of attention…”

The real world demands a lot of attention. So much so that many find it a challenge to think or question it beyond the cliché – Where will my next meal come from? How will I provide for my family? Will I have a job next year? When will I get paid?

That all-important job, and its superficial benefits, leads to an often debilitating myopia. The more secure and comfortable we become in our lives, the less we want to endanger it. The situation of today’s highly competitive job market can very easily envelop us to the point where everything else becomes unnecessary. If it does not improve our immediate situation – please the landlord, placate the wife, impress the boss – it is not needed. Society has never been as diverse and as open to foreign cultures as now but most people do not get further than whatever is on television that night. Even when they know it is meaningless, they still watch it. As Bradbury writes of the average man, the thought is “[…]I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

When considering such a dire situation (dystopic even!), Murakami has it right. All too often we become absorbed in our own lives to consider the situation on a larger stage. The further we get from the every-day routine that binds us, the more we can see. Fiction is an escape into other worlds, other realities; potential dystopian futures or completely foreign lands. The more literature we read, the more of life and our cultures we can understand. This mortal coil ties us to one place at a time, one life with one purpose – to survive.

Literature unravels us into distant places, ancient times, other peoples and their different ways of speaking and writing. Literature begs us to analyse, to compare and, most importantly, to question; to always be asking questions. If you do not ask questions when the firemen start making fires then you cannot complain when there are no more books.

“Literature helps us to question and to always be asking questions…”

This is the attitude that everyone should be taking into their own personal reality. Question the politicians and people in power or they will be free to do whatever they want; analyse what they say, be it about the war in Iraq or the war in Oceania. If the world is getting worse, and we can be fairly certain that it is, I hope it will be some of my non-literature major students who the first to ask why and how we can fix it, rather than blindly working through their balance sheets before sharing cups of Victory Gin…

Steve profileSteve Justice, Contributing Writer

Steve received a Masters in English Literature from St. Andrews University in 2004 before relocating to South Korea where he has taught English Language and Literature for seven years. After teaching at Catholic University of Korea, he now lectures at Seokyeong University in Seoul. He is also studying for a Masters in Literary Linguistics from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include critical literary analysis, stylistics, cognitive poetics, narratology and world Englishes.

 

This article was initially published on the September issue of The HPN Review. If you want to subscribe to The HPN Review, click here.

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“Make a parachute, you philosophy majors, and survive the landing”

Why Study Humanities?

parachute smaller

Chelsea King │ akingjay1@gmail.com

This article has had many incarnations. I think I have written at least ten different versions: some leading to nihilism, others to (unrealistic) optimism. Hopefully, this one will be somewhat in the middle. Let’s begin with a story:

“In a new building, we philosophers were now going to see the light…”

In my ‘senior’ year of undergrad (which was actually my 6th year of college: one might have seen that us Humanities majors do not always take the most direct routes to things), my university received a grant from some very wonderful people for a new, glorious Humanities building. The Philosophy Department for many years lived a very shadowy existence, crammed up a small stairwell, in a small hallway of an old building. We Philosophers were now going to see the ‘light’. And so the ‘hobbit’ area got turned over to the unfortunate souls of Economic majors who had been kicked out of their place because the Engineering Department was expanding (I know it doesn’t make sense but I think they just drew the shortest straw).

 “Who are you?”

 “The Philosophy Department”

“Um… Oh yeah, come back in two months…”

The project was completed two months ahead of time. The whole Philosophy Department moved out, boxes in hand, gazing at what would be our new home. The construction workers came out wiping the dust from their hands to greet the crew of pale, disheveled, tweed jacket folks known as Philosophy professors. “Who are you?” one of the workers asks. “The Philosophy Department” was the reply. “Um… Oh yeah, come back in two months”. The Humanities building had forgotten Philosophy (sure, it wasn’t the building’s fault but it is best we place blame there since I don’t want to get in trouble with my university).

Just in the nick of time, with wet paint still on some of the walls, the Philosophy Department had a new home on the top floor. Of course we would never say we are the highest of the Humanities or anything like that, or that we have the best view of things… We would never say that.

“With wet paint still on some of the walls,

the Philosophy Department had a new home on the top floor…”

In previous versions of this article I wanted to make just that analogy. We Humanities majors ‘get’ it: how studying Philosophy is awesome and you become wise (it is the study of wisdom and all). In the end, it all works out. But once I walked down from my ‘ivory’ tower, reality hit. It was more like I was pushed from that fourth floor and I landed hard. Philosophers don’t really ‘fit’ into society anymore. And graduating in the middle of America’s recession and loaded with student loans did not help. (Just for clarification: while studying Philosophy, I also studied Sociology and Criminology to possibly soften my landing, and because I believe the fields are related. Then again, I also believe Philosophy is related to every subject matter.)

“Once I walked down from my ‘ivory’ tower, reality hit.

I was pushed from that fourth floor and I landed hard…”

Call it aversion, call it love for my field, call it just plain craziness, I went on to get my Masters in Euroculture. So, to the question at hand: what are the real benefits of studying Humanities, and say Philosophy specifically. This leads to another similar question: what do you do with a Humanities degree? Yeah… Um. Things are not looking good in this article. But I am going to keep going, hopefully we’ll swerve just before hitting nihilism. The purpose and benefits of studying Philosophy, as mentioned, are gaining wisdom, such as understanding the mind, and what is real. Additionally, learning about knowledge (and its limits), logic and reason. Basically, it is the study of the quintessence of being human. Now, the ‘practicality’ is another matter.

“I will be honest…”

I’ll be honest: I do not have a ‘career’; I have two part-time minimum-wage jobs (starting to nose-dive, Abort! Abort!). I was given tools from studying, such as problem-solving, asking questions, thinking outside the box, virtues, morals, logic, the power of aesthetics etc. But I have not used these tools to their full-effect (yet). More on this later.

Philosophy is a grand subject and personally, I believe Humanities would not exist without it. As I said, all subjects connect back to Philosophy one way or another. In an ideal world everyone would have to take a Philosophy class and the world would be a better place.

“In an ideal world everyone would have to take a Philosophy class…”

But the world is not ideal. Philosophy, as with almost all the Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences, has a hard time outside of academia. Previous contributors to this column did a nice job in describing the essences of being a Humanities major: being a ‘finicky bunch’, being a ‘generalist’ and understanding ‘different perspectives,’ for example. We are somewhat a lost people: we huddle around, dissecting and creating great ideas and hoping for a better future. But in the meantime we are cold, often poor, and hungry in our bellies and our souls.

Well crap, we nosedived again. I am not going to say one should not take the Humanities, I fully believe in everything the previous contributors said. Society, although not appreciative, needs us. But in a way we also need society (unless the solitary life really appeals to you) and while the constructs of society might be changing, and it might very well be because of us, change is sometimes slow. Sure, there might be great stories told of us later on, but some of us, like myself, would like to lead/have the great story now while I am still alive. The benefits are abstract and we don’t fit (yet). Reality hurts and it hurts bad.

“Society needs us and we also need society”

“Be a part of it, even if it might hurt…

Make a parachute and survive the landing”

If you are going to get pushed out of academia (or perhaps stay and never face ‘reality’), what I can suggest is to make a parachute, something I did not do. We are great minds and we need to be in society so therefore we have to make ourselves fit, which means you need to survive the landing. Borislava Miteva’s comments on this column about concentrating your studies are helpful, but I believe being too specific is just as much of an issue as being too general; you will have to figure out this tight-rope balancing act. Miteva’s other point is on target: you need to be able to show how what you learned is applicable to the job you are applying for. Basically, have a game plan, an idea of what exactly you want to do with your degree (this should be done before you graduate, parachutes work best when they are put on before you jump). Nothing is set in stone, you can have drafts, you can change your mind, but you have to have something ‘on your back’ when you leave academia. Do internships, network(!), and work. Yes, I am going to say it:  almost any job is better than no job. In the end, don’t just talk about society: be a part of it — even if it might hurt. We are Humanities majors after all: strong, daring and resilient. We can take it.

If you want to read previous articles from Why Study Humanities Series, also read

1. The Beast of the field   2. Why Study Humanities? Confessions of a Humanities major

Chelsea King, Copy Editor
chelseaChelsea was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. She graduated from the University of Utah, with degrees in Philosophy, Sociology and Criminology. After spending a year abroad at Södertörns Högskola, Stockholm, Sweden and University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, knew she had to come back to Europe. She is recent graduate from the Euroculture Program from The University of Göttingen and University of Groningen. She likes traveling, meeting new people and has many pensive moments.