Literature is also a form of time travel that helps put today in context. All those apocalyptic lamentations about how "things used to be so much better" are controverted in literature of the last generation, the last century, all the way back to Shakespeare and beyond. Conversely, reading about how people lived in the past can really make you appreciate what humanity is able to accomplish and endure. In the classics, you may read about political battles, domestic abuse, prejudice and civil rights, unwanted pregnancy, binge drinking on college campuses, gangs and juvenile crime, homelessness, nationwide economic crises caused by speculation--as Solomon wrote thousands of years ago, there is nothing new under the sun. History tells us what people did; literature tells us what they were thinking.
Literature is important because it teaches the universal human experience. Literature provides different meanings to different people or teach different lessons to the same person at different stages of their life. However, what they all books or poems have in common - and this is the talent of a great writer - is that they capture the universal human experience. Regardless of what you learn from a book or what meaning an individual elicits from it, literature unites the reader with the universe, because there on the page is a moment, emotion, idea that they have felt or suspected, but never been able to express. .
The study of literature has a civilizing effect on people. There is an extreme danger of education being used primarily to turn out engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, business men and business women and other professionals who are lacking in human feelings and who have been described as educated barbarians. The great Leo Tolstoy wrote a sadly neglected book titled What is Art in which he explained, among other things, the importance of all art to human society. Here is a critical excerpt which might induce some readers to look for the book itself. (See reference link below.)
As, thanks to man's capacity to express thoughts by words, every man may know all that has been done for him in the realms of thought by all humanity before his day, and can in the present, thanks to this capacity to understand the thoughts of others, become a sharer in their activity and can himself hand on to his contemporaries and descendants the thoughts he has assimilated from others, as well as those which have arisen within himself; so, thanks to man's capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him, as well as the feelings experienced by men thousands of years ago, and he has also the possibility of transmitting his own feelings to others.
If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts, or like Kaspar Hauser.
And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.
And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused.
A lot of what is offered as art in our modern world is what Tolstoy called "counterfeit art." It is totally insincere and produced mainly for money. Some of the characteristics of counterfeit art are imitation, and striking and unusual effects. In popular music it can be seen that amplified noise and screaming are substitutes for genuine feeling. Much modern painting looks like nothing more than blatant hoaxes.
Exposure to genuine art in school could conceivably help students to discriminate between real and counterfeit art, including real and counterfeit creative literature. If young people do not get such exposure in school—where are they going to get it when they leave school?
I agree with all of the above discussions; but I am especially gratified to read what spearfam has written: that literature enhances our capacity to empathize.
People talk about the intellectual values of literature: critical thinking, citing evidence and so on. But, I value literature most of all for its emotional and esthetic appeal.
Empathy is emotional; sympathy, intellectual. Literature evokes such human emotions as pity and terror (Aristotle), love and compassion (A. C. Bradley) and many other epistemic virtues (i.e., virtues that help us to know the world and make it better) like honor, bravery, honesty and integrity (Ramirez). But recently, Susan Zunshine has a written a book demonstrating how the human emotion of empathy is critical in our understanding and appreciation of the novel.
Think of any great novel: Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, Jude the Obscure, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Passage to India, Lincoln, The Namesake—all of these excellent novels need empathy to fully appreciate them.
But where do we get empathy from? Consider the odds against empathy. Even in real life we empathize with others without actually experiencing what they experience, a hard thing to do. How much more difficult would it be for readers to empathize with a character who is not actually going through anything!It is all fiction!
Yet we do. Prof. Zunshine says we do this because as we read our intellectual act of reading, i.e., making meaning from the text, triggers our neuro-cells "in some form of mirror effect," same as we would do in real life. However, because the novelist employs one more thing that is usually not present in real life events—esthetics—the emotional impact of novel events (pun intended) enhance our empathy. Thus, because of our empathy we are able to not only realize the characters' emotions, we even anticipate them, Examples of what I am saying are legion, I need not give any more here.
Zunshine's book, and spearfam's reference to literature teaching us empathy, triggered this response from me.
I am grateful for your indulgence.
Students gain a percpetion of ife, an insight into the meaning of so many things
It is this perception and insight that makes literature worthwhile. If an individual can go beyond his or her actual experiences into literary experiences to draw upon when navigating the world, she or he will have better abilities at navigating the world.
I discuss this with my students, and I put it simply:
If you can understand why characters act the way they do, you can understand why people act the way they do. If you can analyze a character and situation, you can analyze any situation in life. If you can analyze a situation, you can make a better decision. Therefore studying literature is a study of life.
Everyone makes great points. A concise summary of reasoning would be:
- Studying literature is the only way some students will ever learn about other cultures and places. This expands their horizons.
- It shows them how characters think, react, and problem solve.
- The process students go through as they think and analyze literature builds their ability to be critical thinkers and problem solvers.
- Sometime studying literature exposes them to words and ideas that reach into their souls and change them forever.
- Thus, studying literature makes the world a better place.
This is a question that high school students consistently ask as they sit through another lesson on Shakespeare or Animal Farm and so on.
Literature is the amazing tool that all the previous posts have alluded to and it gives insight into the culture of others and of other times.
How though do we convince our high school learners of this? Only upon analysis and by making comparisons do they show an interest, it seems to me. By then, however, it is too late for some students because they never paid attention in the first place. Teaching technique is obviously crucial - and that's another whole discussion on its own I think. I saw a discussion post from February 2010
time periods may change, but people and society basically stay the same. The same themes that were present in the past, are still true today, and will remain in the future.
The teacher pointed out how amazed her students were when she related The Scarlet Letter to an article from 2006 when a young woman putting her baby up for adoption
had to disclose in the newspaper her past sexual history, including every partner she had, with a full physical description of her partners, etc
Her students could then better relate to it and were more inclined to attempt to understand it.
The study of literature enhances our ability to communicate with others by acquainting us with the worlds other people live in, their history, geography, and culture, for example. Once we have a common reference, we can talk to anyone with greater ease. For example, when I read The Kite Runner and actually met someone from Afghanistan, I was thrilled to be able to talk to someone, having some understanding of what his native country was like. One term, I taught The Secret Life of Bees, and what was wonderful to me was that when I told my students I was the exact age as Lily and had lived through all the same times, it seemed to me that they were better able to communicate with me after reading the book because they had gained some insight into my world. Literature allows us to talk to one another more empathetically and knowledgeably.
The study of literature is important because it, at its most basic, improves reading skills. From this involved reading of quality literature a student then develops their writing skills, as the two go hand in hand (the best writers are avid readers, typically). Beyond these basic benefits is the development of critical thinking and analysis skills through the study of literature.
The study of literature also helps students see the world - people, places, things, events - through different eyes and by way of a different viewpoint. This contributes to a student forming and developing their own belief set, opinions, views, and such.
Good stories, whether novels, short stories, plays, or poems, help students experience, in their mind, new vistas, customs, cultures, and ways of life. This helps students see how life is different (and the same in some ways) in other countries. Reading international literature gives students a glimpse of how people live and view life in other lands.
From a purely academic standpoint, reading literature of high quality helps a student discern good writing from bad writing. This helps them in their own writing.
Aside from the obvious rudimentary skills it hopefully develops--improvement in reading, composition and vocabulary--the study of literature opens the imagination to previously undiscovered aspects of the outside world. Continued study will reveal other specifics of the individual authors such as symbolism and thematic intent, leading to a wider scope of the reader's own comprehension and knowledge.
If students are taught to analyze literature carefully, using all the tools available for analysis (which presupposes the exclusion of Reader's Response, which may or may not employ analysis methods) then students learn to think logically and critically and they learn to argue from cause to effect as well as from effect to cause.
This sort of detailed analysis requires the mastery of such analytical tools as rhetorical techniques, even obscure ones like litotes and chiasmus. It also requires an understanding of the fact that language carries delimiting properties that exclude a range of interpretations. It also requires a mastery of higher order syntactical forms: if a student cannot understand a third conditional, the student cannot understand the overt meaning, much less the subtle meaning, of what the author has written.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the world's greatest dictionary, defines chiasmus as, "A grammatical figure by which the order of words in one of two of parallel clauses is inverted in the other."
Literature offers students the opportunity to discover, think, evaluate, and analyze the world around them in broader, more universal terms. Studying literature naturally lends itself to involving those higher level thinking skills that we as teachers so desperately want for our students. Whether its a novel-length text, play, or short story, a good piece of literature can be implemented in the classroom to train our students to be higher level thinkers.
Not only do they build their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, students can build their metacognitive skills while annotating literature, and then use those annotations to assist them in comparing or contrasting, or evaluating and analyzing the text in terms of theme, conflict, figurative language, tone or mood.
As in the study of algebra and calculus, the study of literature builds thinking skills that are native to the subject but applicable outside the subject as well.
Skills of argumentation (logical thinking, citing evidence, etc.), interpretation, critical thinking, and writing are all a part of the study of literature.
Literature - seen as a body of works - offers a unique education in itself, representing a wealth of ideas, perspectives, world views, emotional insights and more, all of which enrich the reader's "ideational vocabulary", expanding the range of thoughts and ideas available to the reader.
One of the most important skills children learn through literature is how to react to different situations. Reading allows children to experience situations vicariously, and think about what they would do in the character's place.
Even in the case of fantasy, this can be valuable. Our children may not fight evil trolls and wizards, but they could face challenges where they will need friends’ help, as Harry Potter did. They may not see their father defend a black man in an unwinnable trial, but they can appreciate the importance of standing up for what you believe in as Atticus Finch did.
Bibliotherapy, the process of using books to help those suffering from mental disorders, can be applied to children (sometimes called developmental bibliotherapy). Kids can be given books like Missing May when they lose a loved one. As with adults in therapy, children can come to understand their own problems and talk about them more easily through books.
Many are relieved to find that others have had the same disorder or problem and have coped successfully with it or recovered from it. (enotes, see first link)
I have used books like There's a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom with elementary school students who struggle with behavior problems, and books like The Great Gilly Hopkins for gifted kids trying to understand why they are different. Books are great levelers, and great healers. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about a character’s problems than your own, but you are really talking about yours.