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.
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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.
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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.
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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.