How to Appreciate Literature

Robert V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State University and editor of Modern Age, once said that most professors of English today — the ones devoted to “theory” — really despise literature. Their goal is to attack it, not appreciate it.

That is not the case at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, where a University of Virginia instructor and his students teach short Russian literature classics (in English) to incarcerated young people, aged 16 to 20. Discussing literature becomes “conversation about major life questions,” writes Andrew D. Kaufman, a lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures.

“In such an environment [the detention center] discussions about freedom and moral responsibility, nature versus nurture, and social alienation, become very concrete very quickly,” says Andrew Kaufman in a poignant Inside Higher Ed column. “Russian writers, who knew firsthand what it means to lose one’s freedom, to be an outsider, to search for an ideal in a broken world, become strikingly relevant.”

And Hannah Ehrlinspiel, one of the student teachers, tells how the “Books Behind Bars” program reinvigorated her interest in literature.

For years I had always been taught that literature was something you had to stab at, to pick through until it gave up its most complex secrets. “Books Behind Bars” however, taught me to appreciate simplicity, to yield to the most basic stirrings of emotion caused by a genuine smile or by a beautiful simile. As a result, I got much closer to the texts than ever before, and became genuinely interested in what each work really means.

Getting close to the texts: It might be something English classes could try.

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

Most Popular


The Gun-Control Debate Could Break America

Last night, the nation witnessed what looked a lot like an extended version of the famous “two minutes hate” from George Orwell’s novel 1984. During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More