Once upon a time Literature, with the capital L, was "la creme de la creme" of college courses. Young men and women longed to read the great books that addressed the universal spirit, as clothed in the particular narratives and fashions of different ages. The college years were about personal, philosophical and political contemplation of many different subjects, but literature offered the promise of knowledge that was fun to read.
The great books became the touchstone for sophomore angst. Students courted each other with lines from "Romeo and Juliet." They argued over personal morality and the public conventions in novels as different as Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Jane Austen's "Emma." "Othello" provoked debates over the nature of evil, manipulation and jealousy.
Before social studies, feminist studies, gay studies and even labor-union studies became trendy subjects for their own sake, exploiting great literature to make political points, the great books planted the seed for contemplating the human condition. But sometime over the last century, the literary tree of knowledge was struck by lightning. Its branches grew distorted limbs that appealed to messages without transcendence. Critical interpretation driven by ideology became more important than understanding with an open mind.
Our political life is barren for it. It's mere conceit now that the U.S. Senate is a repository of eloquence and rhetoric; rare indeed is the senator who can make a speech to keep anyone awake. Even with their stables of speechwriters, presidents only occasionally thrill an audience with after-dinner platitudes. As our kids go off to colleges to seek a better world for us and for themselves, we who also stand and wait (to write the checks) ought to listen to an important intellectual debate running just below the academic radar.
"Two or three decades ago, the belief that literature was a repository of knowledge - and important knowledge was usual enough for critics to take it for granted," writes Myron Magnet in a provocative essay in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. "At the very least, everybody understood that literature was a storehouse of documentary knowledge."
No longer. Literature as an intellectual discipline has been downgraded to merely another "realm of opinion" by dead white men whose insights are mere reflections of privilege rather than brilliance.
The attack on literature comes from other directions, too. "Experts" in the "human sciences" - sociology, psychology anthropology - deride literature as mere anecdotal insights of amateur observers who lack rigorous discipline when compared to scientific reports and surveys. This is nonsense, of course. Many college students, nevertheless, are buying it. Literature is not high on their list of majors. Nor is it a priority even as a single course for those studying hard science. Pre-med, engineering, architecture, computer science and business majors graduate from university without taking a single literature course. (Woe, in years to come, to anyone seated next to one of them at a dinner party.)
"Can anyone think that there is more understanding to be gained about the human heart from Freud than from Shakespeare?" asks Myron Magnet. "Can anyone think that the studies of Margaret Mead or Alfred Kinsey tell us anything nearly as true as Ovid or Turgenev?"
Arnold Weinstein, a professor of literature at Brown University, agrees that the study of literature suffers in the groves of academe because it lacks empirical and pragmatic facts. These are precisely the reasons students ought to study literature. Literature is important because it's not bound up in the issues of law, medicine, science, or business.
He urges students no matter what career they plan to enter to take courses in literature because this is where they will find inspiration for the spirit and education for the soul. "If you need a functional purpose," he says, "it sharpens verbal and analytical skills."
Professor Weinstein observes that literature has lost its prestige and status in the larger society off-campus, too. When strangers ask what he teaches, the conversation usually comes to a dead halt as soon as he mentions literature. Men and women in the world of commerce and science are beset with an uneasiness that comes from their ignorance of what moves men and women to human emotion.
Observers of city life can offer the cold data of urban environments - demography, size, architecture, commercial interests, social services as well as the statistical differences between the rich and the poor. But Dickens in "Bleak House" creates an experience of 19th-century London as though we actually lived there. "Literature turns 'data' into living circumstances, facts into fictions and thereby makes them real," Professor Weinstein says.
College students once craved that kind of learning. They can again, with a little push from those who are paying for their four-year (if we're lucky) stroll through the temples of learning.