We Americans pride our- selves on our ability to make use of everything. Often, even our education is geared towards only what is “
useful.” It goes hand-in-hand with our pragmatism—everything must be practical.
If it doesn’t have a clear, immediate use,
why hone a particular skill? If an activity
doesn’t translate into a tangible benefit,
why bother? In our utilitarian, results-oriented culture, the value of something
as “frivolous” as reading literature is constantly questioned. What is the use of
reading a book, we ask? How will it help
my child make money, get a job, round
out a transcript? It’s like doing the math
to make sure you’ll get a tax break before
you decide to have children.
But let’s first make a distinction: the act of
merely decoding words on a page is different from reading literature. Everyone recognizes the need to be able to read. Decoding is being able to understand a concept
through written symbols (words). Digesting literature is different. It is about wrestling with ideas.
So why read literature? Because it tells us
who we are. The point of literature is that it
teaches us who man is. It teaches us about
our nature, our potential for good and evil,
our emotions, passions, and intelligence (or
lack thereof). Stories are captivating; they
evoke an emotional response in us. It is by
experiencing life with fictional characters
that we can see the causes and consequen-
ces of our own actions. It is in seeing the
motivations of Caesar and Scout and Anne
and Frodo that we understand our own. It
is in seeing the results of their decisions that
we can forecast the outcomes of our own.
Julius Caesar shows us that noble intentions do not always determine right actions. Pride and Prejudice highlights the
intricate, complex nature of human relationships. King Arthur points us towards
honor and integrity. To Kill a Mockingbird
shows us the worth—and the heartache—
of fighting for justice, even when you’re
alone in that fight. Classic literature is
bursting with insights to be gleaned about
our own lives. As you watch Caesar’s life
drain out on the Forum floor, you won’t
be wondering how reading of politics and
betrayal will help you with next quarter’s
sales, but you might suddenly understand
the horror of betraying a friend.
Language Arts: Literature
by Paul Schaeffer
Digesting literature is different.
It is about wrestling with ideas.