Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature

A thought-provoking essay on the teaching of literature. I noticed it because of mentioning in my last post (as I sometimes do) how turned off I was the literature I was assigned to read in school.

I don’t remember how my instructors handled the teaching of literature. But I suspect it was not as Gary Saul Morson, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of the linked article, would have.

Though I hesitate to give away the ending of this esay, here is, well, the ending:

… [G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters….

It is therefore crucial to read passages aloud, with the students silently reading along. Students should sense they are learning how to bring a novel to life. “So this is why people get so much out of Tolstoy!”

At that point, students will not have to take the author’s greatness on faith. They will sense that greatness and sense themselves as capable of doing so. Neither will they have to accept the teacher’s interpretation without seeing how it was arrived at or what other interpretation might be possible. No one will have to persuade them why Wikipedia won’t do.

Students will acquire the skill to inhabit the author’s world. Her perspective becomes one with which they are intimate, and which, when their own way of thinking leads them to a dead end, they can temporarily adopt to see if it might help. Novelistic empathy gives them a diversity of ways of thinking and feeling. They can escape from the prison house of self.

Anyway . . . I have in fact always slightly regretted never reading any of the great Russian novels. I don’t think I’m likely to read them now. But if I knew Morson personally, I think he’s probably the sort of guy who would be enthusiastic enough to make me at least pick one up.

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