Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Does Literature Still Matter?

Here, of course, that's a rhetorical question. We know the answer. But Marjorie Garber is taking it to the next level in her new book, The Use And Abuse of Literature.

For Garber, of course, literature does matter. "Language does change our world," she writes. "It does make possible what we think and how we think it." Echoing an argument made by the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom, Garber claims for literature a sort of stem cell-like power to generate fresh and new imaginative experiences in those who read it.

The article is short, but it seems that the book will be something of a throwback to the old "two cultures" debate -- should you teach literature or science? Sure, both, but at what ratio? Which is more important?

Readers of this blog may answer that easily, but that's why our language has words like "should" - because what we want is not always the same as what is. How many times a day do I see some form of the question "Why teach Shakespeare? Is Shakespeare still relevant?" In my world everybody would know the answer to that question, and stop asking it.

I'll be watching for reviews of this book, I'm curious to see how much discussion it generates.


Sharky said...

The argument is pretty much invalidated by the fact that you can pick whichever one you want once you hit college.

Duane said...

I think that drastically underestimates the problem, Sharky. Our choices as adults are informed by what's pounded into our heads as children. Does anybody really pick whatever they want in college? Or do they pick what they think they want to make a career out of? Are the two cultures mutually exclusive at some point? If I'm destined to be an engineer (and I was, from the time I was very little), why should I waste any time studying Shakespeare? I could fill that time with more engineering classes.

Or worse, what if I went to a high school that never even offered Shakespeare? What are the odds that when I get to college I'll naturally sign up for his courses? I'll probably have never even heard of the man.

I think that education by definition must be as broad as possible, for as long as possible, until the individual chooses to drill down into a topic in the interests of career. We can't have educators making that decision by declaring math to be more important that literature, therefore exposing kids to less literature. Of course those kids will grow up and lean toward math - but that doesn't mean that it was their choice.

darthlaurie said...

Well...if we want well-rounded individuals, wouldn't the answer be that literature and science ought to have the same amount of attention given to them?
I seem to recall that the Renaissance men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries preferred to be well-rounded and that meant they could speak about arts as easily as they could sciences and languages.