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Their eyebrows rose.
As they looked at the essay I assigned for discussion next week, they weren’t sure I had given them the right one.
“Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature”
Oh yes, I assured them, it’s the right one.
The medical students and residents nodded and tucked it into their satchels. They would come to understand the purpose of my assignment soon enough.
Perhaps I should give a little background.
“Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature” was written by Gary Saul Morson, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. He is a scholar with particular interest in Russian literature (offering courses on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as well as graduate courses focusing on single novels like War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov). Professor Morson penned this insightful piece to explore just what went wrong in the academy with respect to teaching literature. And I think most of us can relate to it.
To begin with, students fail to understand why literature matters. In the midst of many pressing classes, mountains of homework and extracurricular commitments, students find themselves increasingly likely to circumvent the actual reading of the novels assigned to them. And if instructors fail to convey the wisdom found when plodding through Bleak House, The Brothers Karamazov or Anna Karenina, then what is the point? After all, as Morson says, Wikipedia and CliffsNotes are just a click or bookshop away.
Next, literature is being killed by analysis. It is a death by dissection. The natural flow of a story, the organic introduction to each character and their relationships, and the evolution of lives filled with heroism and tragedy, aspiration and acedia is abruptly halted as the professor undertakes a mad hunt for symbolism, an overwrought divining of context, and a condescending criticism of biases of the day. As a result, the gentle kiss of wisdom about to be imparted as the tale is unfolding is suddenly and rudely interrupted by the jabbering professor barging in with the most inane bits of pedantry.
It reminds me of the time Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to a friend, recalled her experience with certain overzealous English professors intent on dissecting her stories.
There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking questions [about my short story, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’]. ‘Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘why was the Misfit’s hat black?’ I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?’ ‘He does not,’ I said. He looked crushed. ‘Well, Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?’ I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature. [The Habit of Being]
In another letter to an English teacher, she found herself correcting the methods of another wayward academic.
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it. [The Habit of Being]
A difficult novel, if midwifed well by a professor, may yield relevant truths and light an eternal flame in the college student. And that very same student, years later, may re-approach that very same novel only to find that ever more wisdom was there all along. It was simply obscured by their young, inexperienced eyes. But that means that a person must first have enthusiasm for literature and, further, be willing to retread old ground in search for treasures that he overlooked. C.S. Lewis once reflected,
The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of the unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work…Those who read great works…will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life. [An Experiment in Criticism]
There is one point alone that makes Professor Morson’s essay worth reading: Great literature reminds us how to empathize. When I was a boy, my parents would encourage me, “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their moccasins.” Beyond sitting across and thoughtfully engaging with a family member, a friend or a patient, literature can delicately place us into another’s moccasins. And as the characters make bad decisions, we make them too. When they exult in good fortune, we do too. When they suffer, we do as well. Their life, if only for several hours, is magnificently or tragically our life.
So why does literature matter to a bunch of overtired medical students and internal medicine residents? Why should your doctor read great literature? Because in medicine – as in life – we need to better learn how to bear one another’s burdens. We must rediscover the deep meaning found in accompanying someone on his or her life’s journey – a journey at times blessed with health, while at other times fraught with illness. In an all too hurried world, we need daily practice walking in someone else’s moccasins. Without this understanding – the warm clarity of empathy – not only have we missed our purpose, but we have lost our vocation.
As the medical students and residents looked at me, their eyebrows were raised.
“Is this the essay you want us to read?
You’ll understand soon enough.