As noted here, the students in my Spring 2017 sections of ENGL 1302: Literature & Composition at Schreiner University were asked to complete a diagnostic writing exercise during class on 20 January 2017. My usual practice (although I am not always able to follow it) is to do the assignments I give my students, so, as the students wrote their diagnostic exercises, I wrote to the same prompt. That prompt and my response thereto are below.
(Yes, this looks much like a similar exercise in the previous instructional term.)
The University curriculum requires students to take a literature class—and it is not alone in doing so; nearly every four-year undergraduate degree program in the United States asks its students to take one or more literature classes. Why might universities have such a requirement? What do they gain from it? What do the cultures in which the universities exist gain from it?
Because I am a student and teacher of literature, any answer that I might give about the reasons US universities maintain literature requirements for their students–for most all of their students–will seem somewhat biased. After all, I have a vested interest in such maintenance. But it also means I have some insight into the institutional realities that push forward such requirements, and I can hope I have some understanding of the broader social implications of those requirements.
Such understanding as I have about the matter suggests to me that required literature courses are in place partly as a sop–and, yes, I use the word with full understanding of its unpleasant connotations–to moneyed interests that value such things. There remains a cultural thread in place that asserts that exposure to the arts is “good for you”; a dear and valued friend of many years likens it to bran, something not necessarily to people’s taste but which many take in because of the actual or perceived health benefits. And I do not disagree in point of fact with such a view; I do believe that exposure to and engagement with the arts–literature, to be sure, but also music and visual arts, dance and martial arts, and others whose names do not come to mind at the moment–is good for people. I happen to like the bran, however, and even without dumping scads of sugar onto it.
My understanding of the matter also suggests that the courses are required because institutions of learning, particularly those that receive much or all of their support from the public coffer, have some responsibility to be transmitters of culture. That is, because they are funded by collectives, they have some duty to represent the collectives. Such a view quickly becomes problematic, I admit. I am far from ignorant of the fraught nature of literary canons, for example. I know there are many questions to address with them. (Who decides what is good enough to be canonized? How are such decisions made? Borrowing from an older professor of mine, as well as a January 2012 Speculum article whose title I do not recall, how representative are the works typically included in the canon?) I know also that what vision of the collective is presented is subject to no small discussion. (Who counts as part of the collective? What acts and agencies of that collective are presented? How are the failures of the collective presented? How are its successes? What defines success and failure?) But that such questions and problems, as well as others that are not necessarily evident to me at the moment, do present themselves does not mean the idea is, in itself, a bad one. There is some value to be found in schools presenting visions of what groups are, not just what they do and how they do it–and literature, as with all arts, does much to present that vision.
(Related is the idea that access to the literature allows access to jokes and other kinds of references made. Knowing the material allows for understanding references to the material, and the reverse is also true. That reverse is to be avoided, hence the explicit training in the materials.)
Another part of what I understand to be the rationale for having students of all majors sit for literature classes is that the things typically done with literature–close attention to detail, development of arguments from the literature that are supported by that literature (and, in some schools of thinking with which I tend to agree, the contexts of the literature’s composition and reception)–are useful training for work in any and all intellectual fields. Reading “The Land of Cokaygne” and writing an essay that argues it represents the adolescent longings of a novice priest who must work against the desires of his body offers a low-stakes trial for critical thinking skills; an unsuccessful argument will not result in harm to others or much expenditure of resources. Giving low-stakes practice in key activities and processes is generally good pedagogical practice, and all students are like to benefit therefrom. Hence, the literature class.
A reason I hold as a result of my own direct experience studying literature–and which I have reinforced in teaching it, as I have seen students respond thereto–is that there is a wealth of delight in it. For me, untangling literary meanings is akin to working puzzles of one sort or another, whether the jigsaw puzzles such people as my mother-in-law’s family spends time working or the Sudoku my mother-in-law herself works, or the crossword puzzles that can be something of a byword for intellect, or such video games as those in the Legend of Zelda series. Many people spend many hours working on such things and enjoying the work mightily. For me, working with literature functions similarly, and I try to convey that joy to my students when I teach the classes in it that universities require.