"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Importance of Literature

I ask myself, why do I teach literature? Why teach writing? Aside from the fact that it fits nicely into my schedule, it isn't all that practical, financially speaking--I make a small fraction of what I used to make as an engineer. The truth is I teach literature because it has meaning for me. I have sacrificed meaningless money for a meaningful avocation. 

Studying literature is a lesson in humanity; it teaches us what we intrinsically know but tend to forget because we are too busy striving for that A, or that dream job, or making sure our children are fed. By putting this very intimate knowledge on the page, we bring it to a higher level of awareness, and in this higher level of acknowledgement, we span space and time; we see ourselves in others. This commonality that literature enforces--empathy--is one of the virtues of being a human being. It paves the way for compassion, for making peoples' lives better. We seem to be deviating from the tenets of empathy politically these days; amidst all the insanity of whose button is bigger and who can destroy whom faster, but in literature class, we go back to the basics and the spectrum of experiences and emotions that compose us, translated through exceptionally astute minds. 

Literature Quilt Panel 1

We live in a time when the media's saturation of terms results in insensitivity or apathy, but stories can still reach us. Once an issue is personalized, something in us can't help but be engaged. By studying literature, we realize that people who may look differently than us, who may live in different places, from palaces to shitholes, all are capable of the same range of emotion. It’s harder to kill someone when you can see yourself in the eyes of “the other.”

Conversely, in writing, we contribute our own emotions and experiences to the human canon, whether it be journal entries, letters, blog posts, short stories, poems, novels: we contribute our ideas and this should not be taken for granted. This should be championed. There is a significant reward for seeing the self to show up on the page. It makes us wiser.

Literature Quilt Panel 2
In my classes, student engagement is imperative. I am not always successful in accomplishing this; at eight o'clock in the morning I tend to be the one answering my own questions. My main intention, however, never changes: it is to spark curiosity, because curiosity is the greatest learning impetus. Most of my students are relatively new to this planet; their minds are fresh and vulnerable, in the grand scope of things. They are at the brim of the universe, peering in, deciding where they belong, who they are. Literature can help with this.

Literature Quilt Panel 3
If literature is the fabric of humanity--a large quilt sewn in time and space, and one that is continuously being sewn, it is up to us to recognize the patterns of experience, emotions, human truths. Oh the vibrant colors of human truths! Remember, I tell my students, to carry a swathe in your pockets, or knit it across your heart. Let me tell you something, I tell them, at times you will feel that you are an exceptional thread, an anomalous thread, that you don’t fit just right into the fabric, or that you are not the right color or texture. Literature is all forgiving; literature is enlightening; it can present you with other “anomalous threads,” threads like Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn, or Esther Greenwood, and you will say, “Oh.” And you will recognize yourself in these anomalous threads, and you will know that you are woven as well. 

Literature Quilt Panel 4

Or perhaps you will see where in the tapestry it is soiled or worm-eaten, you will feel a sudden rise of inspiration and purpose to make reparations, or you will observe that there are places in the tapestry that are so incredibly vibrant and exotic, you seek to go there. Just knowing that these places exist gives you joy or a sense of adventure or a willingness to indulge yourself. This too is a gift of literature.
Literature Quilt Panel 5

I have taught physics, mathematics, and engineering. I am happy that there is a focus on STEM, because it comes with its own benefits and thinking skills (and some of these are not unlike what you learn in literature and writing classes). But let’s not forget how important literature and writing is, especially now, when old social ills are creeping back in.