A Solid Defense of Literature

by Jane S. Shaw
We have another defense of the humanities, and this one resonates.

It’s clear that more and more students are choosing vocational majors rather than humanities majors. Martha Nussbaum, in her 2010 book Not For Profit blames it on students’ greed. Writing in Commentary, Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Slavic literature at Northwestern University, responds to Nussbaum’s claim by asking:

Could it be that the problem lies not with the students but with the professors themselves?

His essay is a persuasive argument that literature provides something that other disciplines do not—but it is being taught in dull and misleading ways.

Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects.

If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close.

(I would add that even biographers are unable to provide the kind of human rendition that great novelists do.)

But instructors kill interest in literature, usually in one of three ways, says Morson. First, they focus on technical details (“Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing?”) Second, they judge the characters: (i.e., “the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were.”) Finally, they stress historical context (“teaching documents instead of literature”).

Morson doesn’t teach fiction that way. He wants his students to experience literature, and he says that they do, and actually enjoy the challenge of reading demanding books like Anna Karenina and War and Peace.