Generally speaking, I’m wary of attempts to defend literature (or the humanities generally) on utilitarian grounds. It’s not that I don’t think studying literature can be useful; I think—naively, maybe, but honestly—that it can be transformative for both the individual and for society at large. That said, I would still argue that studying it is worthwhile even if it weren’t, strictly speaking, useful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pleasure or even escapism, and frankly, the entire idea that the primary goal of education is utility strikes me as puritanical (sometimes literally—the increasing pressure to make education wholly vocational feels deeply intertwined with the Protestant work ethic).
Still, I have to admit some “real world” applications of literature are pretty exciting. Changing Lives Through Literature is an alternative sentencing program that has apparently been up and running in Massachusetts since 1991. I only just learned of it—perhaps because recent studies have shown that it dramatically reduces rates of recidivism, just by giving participants the chance to take an entry-level course in literature.
Granted, correlation isn’t causation, and the instructors and facilitators tend to credit the sense of community and opportunity for honest discussion when they discuss the benefits of the program. Still, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that studying literature might help reduce crime rates, since it makes us more attuned to the way people (both ourselves and others) think and feel.
Of course, the capacity of literature to foster empathy has itself been studied extensively over the past few years. For those keeping score, the studies generally suggest that, yes, there is a connection of some kind. Honestly, though, while I’m sort of pleased to have scientific justification at my back, I have to shake my head a bit at the fact that anyone feels the need to scientifically prove that literature has a useful function. After all, people who are serious about reading have been saying that loudly for centuries—maybe we should trust them.