Yes, Literature Is Useful (but Then, We Already Knew That, and Maybe We Shouldn’t Care So Much Anyway)

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.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Yes, Literature Is Useful (but Then, We Already Knew That, and Maybe We Shouldn’t Care So Much Anyway)

  1. Who cares if it’s “useful”? We love it! And sometimes a story is the best way, or even the only way, of telling the truth.

    • Definitely true. I suppose that just loving literature might fit under a really broad definition of “useful,” but I don’t think that’s really what the people who want proof of its utility have in mind.

  2. I often get comments about the fact that I’m hoping to do my PhD in literature and history. My usual response is that someone has to teach the teachers and that studying the past and literature is what makes humanity learn and grow. If we totally ignored literature, we’d never evolve!

  3. I agree with you regarding the push for education to be vocational. A good education is not, and should not be, just about being able to get a particular job at the end of it. I like to think that humans would not have been telling stories for thousands if there wasn’t something valuable about it.

    • Definitely. I’m not opposed to vocational school per se for people who know exactly what they want to be doing (although that so often changes), but I think there needs to be space for liberal arts education.

  4. Interesting question. I teach at a liberal arts university part-time,non-tenure track. I also work in provincial department that funds the university. The question of what literature (or pure science, or theology, or poetry, or history…) does–that’s a key questions. States and provinces and prefectures and nations throughout the world are reconsidering their relationship with non-utilitarian programs. To quote Ronald Reagon, “we cannot afford intellectual curiosity.” That’s the dipstick reading of our economic engine.
    What will we lose if States and Industry stop funding the humanities and pure sciences? We won’t know at first, but I think it will lead to anemia. Removing pure science and humanities from our education is the HIV of the intellectual world.
    We will return to the days when a very few could talk about this question, or even tell us why literature is important.
    So it takes purists to translate the value, and do so without selling our soul.

    • Thanks for the (very thoughtful) comment. I don’t work at a college–my hopes at the moment don’t extend any further than eventually finding a part-time teaching position at a community college–but I was a student rep in grad school, which meant sitting in on department meetings. As you say, the whole question of the utility (and, well, profitability) of studying English was a huge question; basically every meeting meant trotting out statistics on course enrollment, undergraduate majors, etc., and the question of how to make the English major more “relevant” was always on the table. It’s sad. As I said in my really brief post, I have absolutely no problem in theory with “using” literature, but I think that the single-minded focus on that is a sign of warped values.

      • So, the follow up question: How do we live straight in a warped world?

      • Well, I definitely wish I knew the answer to that. I think I used to operate under the assumption that I could live indefinitely in a kind of bubble where most of the people I personally had to deal with shared my concerns. That was clearly a self-centered idea of what life could be like, but I think it was my touchstone when making decisions.

        I’d like to say I snapped out of that because it was selfish, but of course, it’s mostly because it’s impossible once you’re out of school. I do have a part-time job that involves writing about literature, so I’m lucky in the sense that I’m getting to share some of what I know with others and make some money doing it, but–at the risk of sounding melodramatic–it’s such an embattled position. I really like the work, and I’ve been treated really generously, but I wish there were more of a space for work like that.

        I guess I could say that that’s one thing I think is really great about the internet–that it creates a kind of radically open forum for the airing of ideas. And I do think that’s true, and a really good thing. But–and this is where I’ll start to sound a little elitist–I don’t think that it can replace the institutional study of something like literature, and for that you have to actually pay people to be experts in it, which we’re increasingly unwilling to do.

        This is probably a really muddled response (because, well, I’m in kind of a muddled stage of my life). I guess I’m trying to figure out a way to still sort of have that bubble, but also bring more people into the bubble, or something.

      • We are a muddled generation! No, it is a good response. It’s the best you can do–the best any of us can do. I’m trying to make some systemic change in bureaucracy, but I realize it will take me years in that sort of position to move those wheels.
        But I think humanities believers, poets, thinkers, intellectuals, researchers, and pedagogues can become evangelists: help people fall in love with ideas. This will come through social media, advertising, the writing of good books, advocacy, and constant engagement with the world.

      • I definitely hope you’re right! That’s certainly what I’d like to do, but it can be pretty exhausting at times.

  5. Pingback: Jerry A. Coyne’s New Republic Piece, and Why Science Professors Should Stick to Science | Reading In The Growlery

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