Goodbye, Liberal Arts?
New national curriculum standards call for students to read less literature and more “informational texts.”


Betsy Woodruff

“There’s truth in a circuit board, but it’s not the same kind of truth,” he says, pointing out that Eliot’s and Kirk’s concern for the permanent things, and Faulkner’s interest in the Old Verities, are probably absent from texts on electronics. “You can’t think about honor or justice or love or anything like that.”

He added that healthy imaginations might serve us better in times of economic woe than do talents for data processing. Economic difficulties demand innovation, he offers, “and it seems to me that you get innovation through a properly formed imagination, and literature forms the imagination.”

Nothing pushes the horizons of the human imagination like Dante’s Commedia, which Professor Stephen Smith teaches at Hillsdale. Before getting his master’s, he taught high-school English at a boys’ school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and then at a girls’ school in the Bronx. He chuckles about the prospect of expecting high-school students to read “informational texts.” “There must be some Homer of the instruction manual out there!” he says. “We’re just not aware of it yet!”

When he taught high school, he found explaining the importance of fiction and poetry to be one of his greatest challenges. He offers the following defense of teaching lit to high-schoolers: “To experience great works that move you through their beauty to wonder and reason — this has always been in our tradition the beginning of serious reflection on the human person, on the best way to live, on those serious questions that sooner or later all of us must confront, and that the young really want answers to now.”

Reading great literature helps students start to know themselves so they can begin “a life of reflection, a life wide awake,” Smith says. “Socrates said most folks sleepwalk through existence, and these books have a tremendous awakening power.” It’s safe to say that reading FedViews doesn’t.

Finally, Professor John Somerville, who wrote his dissertation on Flannery O’Connor and is about to teach a class on Cormac McCarthy, points out that great literature forms community, especially given that literature seems to have its roots in religious contexts. Religious stories held cultures together in ways that data points never could, as early bards, storytellers, and religious leaders gathered communities to share their narratives. “I’m certain those people would not have sat around and had someone come in and give them a lecture on invasive plant species or factory guidelines, or whatever it might be,” Somerville remarks.

Somerville directed me to Marilynne Robinson’s comments on the subject. In an essay in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, she writes:

I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

In other words, reading great literature can help students cultivate their emotions and capacity for empathy. It’s hard to write this without sounding sentimental, but stories bring us together and keep us together. Factoids do not.

David Foster Wallace got at the same idea in a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery. “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible,” he said. “But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

Schools don’t exist as job-training camps. They exist to educate students. To be truly educated, students need to graduate with more imagination, not less. They need to face questions about what it means to be a human being — they need to stop sleepwalking, if they’ve started it already — and they need to start learning how to love strangers. We all know that becoming properly educated is a lifelong endeavor. But Washington gives students a huge disadvantage if it leads them to think that memorizing data and processing facts is 70 percent of living well.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.