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How Dostoyevsky Prepared me for the Real World

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined that someday I would need to defend the use of literature in English classes. Never.

But we live in a brave new world where advocates for student "preparedness" discount the value of literature as preparation for college and the workplace. Why write about Hamlet when what students really need to know is how to write a memo? Why waste time wandering lonely as a cloud when students could be learning economics? Why read The Things They Carried when what students need is more practice with informational documents? Why indeed.

Preparedness, as every Boy Scout knows, is a good thing. In her memoir Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Elizabeth Samet describes her experiences as a civilian professor teaching The Iliad and "Dulce et Decorum Est" along with Shakespeare and Tim O'Brien to cadets soon to be posted to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the words of one of Samet's students, "I'll have the company of a thousand characters to walk with me into the future." Samet reflects upon the ways in which literature serves as a kind of intellectual armor helping to keep us safe by reminding us that we are not alone—neither in our misery nor in our bliss.

I try to remind those who consider literature nice but not essential—like having good table manners or knowing how to choose a wine—that young people need to be able to do more than make a living; they need to make a life. Students learn from Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities about what happens when fiscal pursuits trump all other concerns. (Would that more financiers participated in book clubs.) This is not to suggest that students read literature for moral instruction or that we should teach it as catechism but rather that wide reading exposes young people to a breadth and depth of experience otherwise unavailable to them. Reading allows students to explore the road not taken.

Along with making a living and making a life, I want my students to make a difference. This could mean sowing lupines like Miss Rumphius in Barbara Cooney's picture book or, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, defending Tom Robinson. Even in defeat Atticus made a difference. I believe preparing for the real world requires more than practical skills. It demands an educated imagination.