Saturday, October 5, 2013

Why Teach Great Literature?

Great literature is not just entertainment. Researchers at The New School (in New York) have discovered that reading literary fiction enhances one’s sensitivity to the complexity and nuance of human interaction and human behavior. Which will necessarily improve your social skills.

However, reading pulp and popular fiction has no such effect. Nor does reading what the researchers call quality non-fiction.

The New York Times summarizes the report:

It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.

How was the experiment conducted?

People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments. They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale.

When it came to choosing nonfiction the researchers chose excerpts from magazine articles. They were not handing out snippets of Matthew Arnold or John Ruskin. And they were not measuring the effect of reading Descartes or David Hume:

In one experiment, some participants were given nonfiction excerpts, but we’re not talking “All the President’s Men.” To maximize the contrast, the researchers — looking for nonfiction that was well-written, but not literary or about people — turned to Smithsonian Magazine. “How the Potato Changed the World” was one selection. “Bamboo Steps Up” was another.

One understands that one’s social skills are not going to be enhanced by reading about how the potato changed the world. But, is the same true for reading and seriously studying Plato or Thomas Aquinas?

The jury is still out.

What does it all mean?

It suggests that great literature activates areas of the brain that teach people to appreciate the complexity of human character and motivation.

Junk novels and contemporary magazine essays do not activate your imagination. They are more about the story line than the characters or the writing.

Human beings, despite what today’s psychologists think, do not live their lives in order to make for interesting stories.

It all makes sense: people study the Humanities because they want to learn about human beings. Even if science gives us some of the rules that govern human interactions it show us the dizzying complexity of how different relationship games can be played out.

The study also demonstrates that children should learn how to read the best literature and even the best philosophical writing. They should, in other words, be taught the canon of literary and philosophical classics.

You probably know that Humanities departments have long since rejected the literary and philosophical canon in favor of ideological drivel. Students are well versed in the work of mediocrities like Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler but know nothing of Aristotle or Locke or Schopenhauer. They pore over feeble-minded politically correct thinkers but ignore Dickens, Austen and Henry James.

More importantly, when classics are presented in college classrooms these days they are taught as ideological vehicles, not as literary works. A college student is more likely to study Shakespeare’s sexism than to learn to appreciate the characters and language.

Many of today’s Humanities professors are in the indoctrination business. They understand that great literature poses a threat to their aspirations.  They have not banned it entirely from curricula but have tried to neutralize its benefits by wringing the genius out of it and turning it into an instrument of thought reform.

The result: fewer and fewer students are now taking Humanities courses. The departments are passing into obsolescence. They can be compared, in the bard’s words, to the engineer who is: “hoist with his own petard.”

One wonders, in this day and age, how many of them know what that means.


Anonymous said...

Bruno Bettleheim wrote The Uses of Enchantment. The main idea is that a child can use information from the older Fairy Tales to meet his or her psychological needs based on characters in the stories. You read stories to a child and he or she will show preference for a favorite story which meets the child's needs at a unique level of interpersonal development. This book also identifies the number one developmental issus. The child does not ask, do I want to be good?, but rather, Who do I want to be like?

Batman Begins is a very good story for contemplation by adult males in the way children contemplate Fairy Tales.

David Foster said...

I wrote about some of this research a couple of years ago, here:

Keith Oatley, one of the researchers, has referred to novels as "the mind's flight simulators." I'd observe that with *real* flight simulators, the fidelity of the simulator to the behavior of the actual airplane is important (an issue that is lately getting some attention from the FAA) or the sim may wind up doing harm instead of good. By analogy, I wonder to what extent there are "fidelity issues" with the representation of human nature in heavily-read popular novels?...especially, I wonder, if the development of characters of the opposite gender from the author?

Sam L. said...

Students smarten up, refuse indoctrination courses. When they can.

JKB said...

Seems to me, one need to read great literature. Reading does not require a teacher. As your post discusses, such teaching is virtually non-existent at the current institutions anyway.

More students have been turned off great literature for what passes as English education as it is. Read, stay out of the classes.

Dennis said...

By reading "great" literature one learns that almost nothing has changed about the human condition except the technology available to them. We have ready access to the future presented to us by the past.
We find that the same ideas existed and failed in the past as well as the present and will in the future. I would agree with JKB that one needs to ignore those who inhabit the Humanities departments and read every thing that these very same people try to keep one from reading unfiltered. There is a reason that people try to stop others from reading about the past and the inevitable contact with the historical prospectives contained therein.
It one can view humanity sans the lenses of Deconstructionism, Minimalism, et al then one finds that we aren't so different and that the life lessons contained apply as much today as it did then.
My advise to any person who desires to understand life is to read the classics and become eclectic in all that one reads. Because one reads it opens up "the theatre of the mind" to vast wonders and a panoply of emotions and thought. Given the darkness of much of modern literature one might believe very negative thoughts about humanity and its worth. We can and are better than that despite the over emphasis on the dark side.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you are now celebrating the virtues of learning "empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence" and being "sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity."

Aren't you always complaining that the "therapy culture" wants people to "get in touch with their feelings?" Aren't you always complaining that "feelings" are not a good roadmap to life? Aren't you always disparaging the over-valuation of qualities like "empathy?"
Aren't you always whining how boys are put at a disadvantage in schools because (female) teachers reward female virtues like "empathy" and "sensitivity?"

So, it's ok to learn these virtues from great literature, but not anywhere else?

So, um, you might discourage some young man from going into therapy, but instead had him a copy of Pride and Prejudice?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I was talking about social skills, which require some sensitivity to the complexity of human relationships. The authors mentioned empathy and I chose not to correct them, because my views are public record. I am happy to see that you have mastered the art of invective, but clearly that is the limit of your own rhetorical and social skill. Sad...

Anonymous said...

"I was talking about social skills." And? How does that diffuse the blatant contradictions manifested here in your own endless invective against "therapy culture" and female teachers?

Fine, remove "empathy" from the vocabulary. You still have to deal with "emotional nuance and complexity."

If these are "social skills" that you value, why can't they be learned in school or in a therapy situation?

Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I believe "emotions" are a synonym for "feelings."

I find it funny that your own blog is one long invective and one long extended hate speech, yet you are the first to whine when someone inveighs against you.