Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature

This essay is long but worth a read. The first half cuts through all the pious nonsense one hears about why this is bad, as exemplified in the opening paragraphs:

Go to just about any English department at any university, gather round the coffee pot, and listen to what one of my colleagues calls the Great Kvetch. It is perfectly summarized by the opening sentence of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s recent book: “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” She is not speaking of looming environmental disaster or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You see, those are threats we can discern. The danger Nussbaum is highlighting “goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government.”

When a writer invokes the insidious progress of a cancer, you know she hopes to forestall the objection that there is little visible evidence to support her argument. What is this cancer threatening democracy and the world? Declining enrollments in literature courses. Her book is titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

Following this the writer looks at several actual reasons that students avoid literature, giving them their due. The short version is this: students see no benefits to reading literature that can’t be obtained in other, easier ways, and the professors who moan about it don’t bother to make those benefits available.

What makes this essay worthwhile is the second half, where the writer very clearly spells out the benefits:

Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects. […]

It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.


We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. I have never heard anyone say: “Yes, you only see things from my point of view. Why don’t you consider your own for a change?” The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently. […]

We live in a world in which we more and more frequently encounter other cultures. That is part of what globalization means. And yet we are often baffled by them. Americans have the habit of assuming that everyone, deep down, wants to be just like us. It simply isn’t so, and I assure you that others assume that deep down we want to be just like them. When Russians listen to our leaders express their views about what people really want and how nations ought to behave, they think our leaders must be lying, because no one could actually think that way. They are as deeply convinced of the obvious correctness of their perceptions as we are of ours, and so they cannot imagine that others can sincerely perceive things differently.

But great 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.

And, most important to me:

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.

I think this last is true of any bit of writing, fiction or nonfiction. When we read, we see things through another’s eyes. I’ve understood for a long time how vital it is to continually broaden my perspective, to extend my empathy, and I’ve also become ever more aware of how much the pursuit has blessed me. Reading has played a central role in that, since writings are the single best source of relevant information. But until reading this essay I hadn’t thought much about the writer’s role in this, the eyes he or she offers the reader. I’ve benefited from them, but unawares. Thanks, authors!

5 thoughts on “Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature

  1. I can’t say she’s wrong for Northwestern University. On my large urban commuter campus where half of students qualify for Pell Grants, however, what the humanities (not just literature) cost vs the financial payoff is a definite obstacle. I hear it from parents at admissions and recruitment events and it is the first question a student will ask in advising session.

  2. Servetus,

    Probably the failure is in two parts. The children first need to have been raised to understand that it is vital for them to learn how to empathize, and to have practiced it a good bit in their family life. Around here we spend a lot of time teaching the kids the need to view things from the other person’s perspective, whether it be their sibling or mom or dad or acquaintance, or even characters they see in films. (Seeing the film Inside Out as a family was very helpful here.)

    We also teach them to read widely and extensively, but mostly they read for the adventure. My oldest son Chris is sick of me telling of the time when he read through the first ten pages of Heart of Darkness, then set it down. I asked him what it was about, and he replied “Two guys sitting on the deck of a boat in the dark, talking.” Exactly right, as far as the story’s action goes. But the view we see through Marlow’s eyes … wow!

    I don’t think most teenagers are ready to learn empathy via the written word until they are college age. So for those few who have been properly prepared, exposing them to great literature at that point–and teaching them how to approach it effectively–is the perfect one-two punch. It is the sort of life skill which, though it may not get you a better job, will enable you to better handle whatever life may throw at you. It’s tough to put a dollar value on that, but I think we could do a better job of explaining its practical value to normal people.

  3. I’m sure we could. But in a situation where students maxing out government grants still may end up borrowing $30k to get jobs that top out at $35k, no matter how empathetic anyone is, sheer survival matters a lot. I don’t think our students are especially unempathetic, but they have a lot of experience already in dealing with what life throws at them, I suspect. Another issue — the sort of value that a humanities degree has in the hands of someone who has inherited cultural capital is strikingly different than it is for those without it. Wall Street is happy to hire an entry level financial person with a literature degree if the degree is from Harvard. We teach the same things as Harvard does in our degrees, but the success level of the students is strikingly different. In other words: context in life, as well as in literature, really does matter.

  4. Perhaps it would be helpful to separate the question of learning to empathize through reading literature (an idea I endorse) from that of spending precious and expensive college time learning to do it. I never took a literature class in college, but I was fortunate enough to spend five years (age 35-40) in a monthly Great Books discussion group with five good friends and learned how to read literature there at no expense except those very pleasant Saturday mornings.

  5. That would make sense to me, and I’m prepared to agree with you on that, because I don’t have the impression that college-age students are reading all that much less than they have in the last twenty years or so, anyway. They just aren’t reading as much canonical great literature as such. They may be learning their empathy lessons elsewhere, or from different kinds of reading, or different sorts of texts. I did take one literature class in college, and lost interest in literature classes for one of the reasons the author cites (the emphasis on formal analysis), so I am sympathetic on that point. But by that time I was already extremely interested in literature — just not in what scholars had to say about it.

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