Why Teach or Study Literature?

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This post originally appeared March 19, 2014.

I was a little nervous to tell my father my plans to major in English with a creative writing emphasis.  Though my parents had always emphasized the importance of literature—my mom was a high school English teacher, and my dad would read us Mark Twain and John Steinbeck when we were kids—I felt like my choice would strike him as being completely impractical. My dad was a newspaper publisher—essentially, he oversaw all aspects of the business, from the newsroom to the pressroom.  And he was a pretty conservative guy, too—education was important to him, but he also made sure I knew that success and financial security were the results of hard work and smart decisions.  And deciding to focus my academic career on writing screenplays and personal essays would, I feared, strike him as frivolous, a less-than-smart decision.

If I knew then what I know now, I imagine I might have gone into the conversation with more confidence.  Contrary to common misperceptions, English majors do not tend to spend their careers toiling away in coffee houses or bars, serving espresso or martinis to the former business majors who are actually using their more “practical” degrees to make money.  Some do, I suppose, but not the majority.  Most surveys that measure salary by college major indicate that English majors tend to make comfortable middle-class salaries—not as much as some, but considerably more than others.  Furthermore, English majors, on average, tend to report a high degree of job satisfaction.  This is important, I think.  I realize that I might have chosen a different career (or major) that might have resulted in more money in my checking account, but would I love that career as much as I love the one I have, teaching creative writing and literature?  And if not, would I love my life as much as I do?  I suspect the answer is no.

So, in hindsight, I’m glad I made the decisions I made.  Still, back then—sophomore year, 1995, I was a little nervous about what my dad would say.  It turns out I needn’t have worried.

My dad was responsible for hiring people in all sorts of capacities—reporters, editors, advertising sales representatives, circulation managers, press foremen, accountants… you name it.  He had been doing this for quite a long time, and he told me that as long as I was majoring in a discipline considered part of the traditional liberal arts, he was confident I was going to be fine.

“As an employer, I can teach an employee the job,” he said.  “What I can’t do is teach someone how to learn.”

That’s what we do, in the liberal arts—we learn how to learn.  We analyze texts.  We hone our communication skills.  We learn about cause and effect—whether it’s how the Treaty of Versailles ended the first World War but unintentionally laid the groundwork for World War II, or the role sunlight plays in a plant’s ability to survive, or how a myopic sense of materialism ultimately leads to Ivan Ilych’s death.  The liberal arts demand that the student think both carefully and deeply about any given subject, and these habits that become second-nature to the English or History major turn out to be the very skills that employers are looking for.

I’ve focused my argument supporting a liberal arts major (and an English major, specifically) on the utility of the degree on the job market, because I feel like in 2014, as students are still feeling the burden of the Great Recession, this is a huge concern.  But let’s be clear—the goal of an education isn’t just to land the perfect job (my high school U.S. History teacher once lamented to my class, “Why is it we never argue that education is worthwhile because it’s neat to know stuff?”).  My education in literature and creative writing has made me a more thoughtful, reflective person, which makes me a more responsible citizen (I’m not going to vote for a candidate whose public statements are entirely vapid or meaningless, like “Freedom isn’t free” or “We can do better” or “If [x] happens, the terrorists win”).  This education has compelled me to make sure I waste as little of my time on earth as possible (I defy you to study literature for a few years and not walk away with a knowledge of your own mortality and the ever-forward march of time).  Perhaps most importantly, I feel like my background in English has helped me become a better husband and friend.  Studying literature prevents solipsism—you can’t read “Sonny’s Blues” or “Diving into the Wreck” without considering the unique consciousness and point-of-view of another person.  I am convinced that this ability to see through someone else’s eyes, inhabit some else’s shoes, is a vital skill to have if you want to enjoy a happy life.  If I couldn’t understand where my wife is coming from in those rare moments when I do something to frustrate or anger her… well, I’d be divorced by now.

The most important thing is to make sure that you study a variety of subjects, and that you pick the subject that interests and excites you most for your major.  Some people speak of college and the “real world” as if they were entirely separate things—as if college students inhabit some strange parallel dimension where they are completely shielded from responsibility and repercussions from their decisions.  This is nonsense, and it’s harmful nonsense at that.  College is, in fact, the traditional student’s entry into the real world—the decisions one makes as a student will have ramifications for the rest of her life.  She may choose the road less travelled by, or she may choose the road that others have trod before her.  It’s the act of deciding that makes all the difference.

About the Author
William Bradley’s nonfiction and commentaries on nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals, including The Missouri Review, The Normal School, Brevity, College English, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the Assistant Editor of the magazine River Teeth, and he teaches at St. Lawrence University.