A Defense of Studying Literature

fume-hoodWhen people call physics and chemistry “hard sciences” they refer to those subjects’ basis in mathematics and quantitative reasoning. In the lengthy definition of “hard,” such subjects fit best with 7a,“1. firm, definite; 2. not speculative or conjectural: factual; 3. important rather than sensational or entertaining.”

By that definition, my own specialty—reading, thinking over, and writing about literature—is decidedly soft. Many people probably assume the earlier definitions of “hard” don’t fit English either. Because literature classes don’t require mastering complex and rigorous physical laws, they aren’t seen as being as difficult as classes involving equations, graphs, and experimental data. Literature is fuzzy, subject to slippery interpretations and airy whims. You can say anything about a story, novel, or poem, the reasoning goes, so what you say is insubstantial, variable, and, on some level, false. Some people think English teachers should grade easier because there’s nothing really to grade. If you can’t do numbers or master analyzing figures, it appears you’re better at bullshit than anything else.

As might be expected, this sort of thinking makes me defensive. Anyone who has read Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, Joyce, Pynchon, Wallace, and countless others knows literature aspires to considerable complexity. Some works offer challenges equal—in their own way—to calculus, advanced economics, or quantum physics. The absence of hard information creates distinctive burdens. Nuanced interpretations rely on sophisticated understanding of language, fine differentiation, scrupulous decoding, and resourceful observation. Saying something new about texts pored over for hundreds of years isn’t easy.

Nonetheless, some might say less is at stake. People see literary analysis as arcane. No one calls an English teacher for an emergency opinion on Jane Austen, so we’re all diddling, expending valuable mental energy on silly pursuits. Nothing we talk about or write about is real because none of it is practical, none required. If I say understanding the human condition is real and necessary, a boon to living if not absolutely essential, some may say, “Yes, but it’s fiction, right? It’s invented, not the granite foundation of existence.”

I wish people understood hard sciences the way I understand literature, as a way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality. How did the quantifiable become so privileged? How did it become the preferred means to truth—and sometimes regarded as truth itself? When did we begin believing exclusively in the explainable, the graph-able, and the hitherto undiscovered minutiae of physical processes? How can the definitive be all we should notice? When did we decide only knowing certainly matters?

Sometimes I think everything we call “hard” in those terms—the factual and verifiable—is actually the lowest lying fruit, subject to mechanical processes of discovery requiring more discipline than invention, more scrutiny than inspiration, more brute data-picking than art. I know that’s not so. Experimenters rely on insight as well. They follow hunches about where and how to look. Scientists and mathematicians require creativity also. I see that.

These hard subjects are clever and rigorous, but I want to beg respect for my own specialty and request acknowledgement of literature’s effort to seek truth. If humans only find answers to the questions we think to ask, shouldn’t we ask all sorts of questions and address reality from every angle of inquiry, hard and soft?

The other day, a senior at my school said, “I’d like to go into medicine, but I’ll probably end up studying English instead.” Her assumptions were ready to be read. She knows she may have to settle. Medicine may be too hard, and English is simpler. Maybe, but even if that were so—and it shouldn’t be—the value of any study can’t rest on how easy or difficult it is. Academic disciplines arise from what they add to understanding, how they train minds, educate, and humanize.

I’d argue this country produces as many bad scientists as bad English majors. And our educational system as a whole fails when it ranks pursuits as fruitful and less so, as real and unreal. Of course the world needs scientists and mathematicians, and, because rigor probably has scared people away, it’s important to urge others to fill those roles. But we also need brilliant people who can accommodate soft thinking and appreciate elusiveness and uncertainty and—dare I say it?—beauty. Education will be healthier if it can recognize the value of complexity without groping for definitive, hard answers.


Filed under Ambition, America, Arguments, Art, Education, Essays, Genius, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Persuasion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

148 responses to “A Defense of Studying Literature

  1. Reblogged this on It's all kids stuff. and commented:
    Oh wow. Great post! It’s odd how nobody really likes indefinite answers anymore. They want to know if they’re right or wrong. That’s all. They don’t want to try to see both sides of a debate, they’d like to pick one and stick with it. But by understanding both sides, there’s a bigger understanding of the work in general. You’ve got all these factors to consider, historical, cultural, psychological, gender, and so on- I find it’s research- like how scientists research medicine- only in a different way. And the research of literature done by people, just like the research scientists do, has the same goal: to understand how things work in life- we’re just looking at books instead of doing experiments.

    • dmarshall58

      Well said. There’s so much to be said for Keats’ negative capability (which a psychologist might call cognitive dissonance) the capacity to hold two contradictory truths in the mind at once. I still believe in contradictory truths (and many scientists and mathematicians must deal in confusing paradoxes too). Like you, I worry we engage in summary judgment too often. We’d be much better off abiding uncertainty more. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  2. jackiehames

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    What society fails to see is the symbiosis of “hard” sciences and literature. Historically speaking, weren’t great scientists and mathematicians also quite involved in philosophy, literature, the arts? You cannot have one side of the discussion without the other. Both science and the arts require one common thing: imagination.

    You cannot fathom life on Mars without imagination, and therefore would never do the math to calculate how to get to that planet. You cannot derive insight from text without having the imagination to apply it to society.

    • dmarshall58

      It’s hard to defend my own specialty without commenting on others, but I didn’t mean to bash scientists. As you’ve said, great scientists and mathematicians ought to be philosophical, even artful, and many must be. You’re so right about imagination. It seems to be the key to it all–the capacity to believe in possibilities to stretch well beyond the easy (and perhaps seemingly obvious) answers. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. –D

  3. thatvoiceinsidemyhead

    You are, quite simply put, my hero. Fantastic post!

    • dmarshall58

      As I’m so seldom even my own hero that’s quite a compliment. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. –D

  4. I totally agree with you. People assume that because I am good at math that I am not good in writing. This is not always the case. Thanks for sharing.

  5. As an English major, I believe that while sciences can look into our building blocks and discover laws, they’ll never do what English majors and literary analysts can do, and that’s use a text to look into the soul of mankind.
    That’s my opinion, at least.

  6. Hear, hear! People often think of English as an easy option — but only the people who don’t take it.

    • dmarshall58

      As a teacher, I meet many students who expect literature to be entertaining, and it often is. The trouble usually starts when I ask them to remember it, scrutinize it, and speculate on it. Then, it’s not so entertaining, and some think I must be crazy to make English so hard. The truth is that, like any subject, some take to it easily and others must work at it. Science and math aren’t for everyone and neither is literature. We ought to be grateful we all have places our particular sort of intelligence can be productive. Thanks for commenting! –D

  7. I blame the accountants.

    • dmarshall58

      They’ve got to accept some of the blame. You have to wonder if counting in general has led us into trouble. We like to think we can quantify everything, with the result that we qualify little. –D

  8. In defense of the soft:

    A favorite English professor of mine was stopped in the hallway by a physics professor. He told her that her study of literature and his study of physics both merge into one point when one studies the subjects to the limits. Both search for an ultimate knowledge.

    The book, Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain, seeks to explain and justify art to his young daughter. He is a surgeon, not an artist, but in the end he not only justifies art, he connects it to the sciences.

    My son has an MBA. He is doing well in his work because he communicates well with his superiors. Both in writing and speaking, he is the preferred employee that his superiors seek out even though he is very young still.

    • dmarshall58

      I will have to look up Shlain’s book–it sounds wonderful. My son is a visual artist who loves math, and I teach many students who have interests as diverse. Some students are dismissive of English, but I’m lucky to teach at a place where people rate writing and speaking highly. Though I sometimes wish they weren’t so utilitarian in their effort, I’m grateful to work with people who are up for a challenge. Thanks for commenting. –D

  9. Thanks for a great post. As a fellow English major, I can relate. It’s necessary for us to realize that when we approach the “hard” without the critical perspective honed by the “soft” we are most easily persuaded and at times manipulated. Plus I think there are aspects of life in which “truth” cannot be captured by numbers and experimental results.

    • dmarshall58

      You’ve put it perfectly. I have the same worry that some aspects of life just can’t be explained by quantities. I also believe some to the best (and most beautiful) aspects of life lie in those in-between spaces we miss when we expect hard answers. Scientists and mathematicians know that too, I suspect, it’s more the expectation of answers that seems dangerous. Thanks for your thoughts on this post and thanks for visiting. –D

  10. Thank you and congrats for being Freshly Pressed! As an art-college-student-who-is-not-an-artist, I struggle with the same problem: not being take seriously. That, and jokes about working in Tesco.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. I think not being taken seriously is the hardest part of being a Literature teacher. I’m lucky to work at a school with healthy respect between the departments, but I know that’s not universally so, which is a shame. We’re all really in the same pursuit of a well-trained brain. By the end of your studies, your brain will have powerful and distinctive skills. Best of success, and thanks for visiting. –D

  11. There are so many clues about the world’s history, scientific discoveries, and society’s values or beliefs hidden in literature. It is a skill and a bit of a gift to recognize the depth of good literature and the shallowness of poor writing. As an English major, married to an Engineer, I can assure you that I have to defend my “intelligence” often. Sigh.

    • dmarshall58

      The word “gift” seems particularly important. It IS a gift to see the world with subtle shades of meaning. Not only does it make the world more lovely, it reveals there’s so much more hidden in it. Thanks for commenting. –D

  12. My field of study is theology and philosophy – subject to even more scorn by the “hard” sciences than literature, but yet another angle from which to investigate life.

    I also spent a few years as an English teacher and teaching literature was by far my favourite. One thing I did find interesting: in South Africa great emphasis is placed on Math and Sciences by government, yet English (or whatever language is taken as home language; we have several options here) must be passed in order to graduate. Because without the necessary communication skills, we won’t be able to practise any of the other sciences, hard or soft. And communication goes beyond knowing your spelling and grammar. Effective communication is about discerning meaning and motives, and giving what you say the correct nuance to bring your precise intentions across.

    That we can only learn through/from literature. Otherwise we’d be better off speaking Orwell’s Newspeak.

    • dmarshall58

      Yes, an important point–the capacity to communicate is central to every study. I’d also defend theology and philosophy. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but he might have said the unexamined life isn’t very pleasurable. The capacity to think, and especially to question as deeply the way philosophy and theology demand, give life so much more depth and meaning. Shouldn’t we all want that? Thanks for your thoughtful comment–I really appreciate your visit. –D

  13. lovebean15


  14. It may have been regarding English as a “soft” option that caused my grades to slip below those for other school subjects, but now I blog about it. Communication skills are arguably the most important for any subject and fiction can shine a light on reality. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Sue

    • dmarshall58

      It’s especially satisfying and fun to see students come around and appreciate literature in new ways. It isn’t just that communication skills are so vital, they are also a means to express our thoughts and feelings… and a source of pleasure. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  15. theawesomebloke

    I love literature, the classics and my interpretations of them. I am totally against the academic study of it.

    • dmarshall58

      I respect that point of view. On my side, I’d only say that studying literature academically is a pleasure for me. I love looking at it and inside it, and scrutinizing it doesn’t diminish my love but enhances it. Thanks for your comment. –D

  16. I studied foreign languages and people do not understand how hard it can be, how mind-opening and, above all, how important the choice of words is: for me it’s not enough to get a message across, I want people to get exactly that specific messageI am thinking of. Words really matter.

    • dmarshall58

      I have no gift for foreign languages–which is to say I have to work hard at them–but know the mind-opening moment you address. Maybe that’s the true defense of every study, the way they lead us into new and unexpected territory and convince us of our capacity for greater understanding. Thanks for commenting! –D

  17. THANK YOU!!! I did an English degree and all people thought it was good for was “reading books” (my parents), “watching poncey plays” (friends) and “being a teacher” (the hubby). Just terrrible. I LOVED my degree, it opened up a whole world for me, so thank you for the defense!

    • dmarshall58

      Why shouldn’t it be enough that studying literature leads to opening up whole worlds? It’s tough to defend what others don’t understand, but I’m happy you’ve valued your education and recognize how much it’s given you. Thanks for visiting. –D

  18. Pingback: The Usefulness of Literary Analysis | Rami Ungar The Writer

  19. Science without imagination would be like practicing medicine without listening to the patient. I still think creative writing and thinking about literature is easier than physics problem sets, though. Anyone ever study buoyancy? Multi-dimensional calculus? On the other hand, lots of people can master calculus but there was only one Sartre. Only one Tolstoy. Brilliance is brilliance whatever your field.

    • dmarshall58

      So true. I didn’t mean to bash math and science and know the challenge of physics and calculus, but if someone expects to escape challenges in my class, something is suspect. We ought to celebrate brilliance everywhere because the more questions we ask the more answers we’ll receive, which can only enrich our appreciation of this complex and beautiful planet. Thanks for visiting. –D

  20. Reblogged this on Writing Red Baron and commented:
    Because the “fuzzy” classes are the classes where you talk about life, and things that mean something greater than the number you get when you type an equation into a calculator. ❤

  21. As a writer degreed in English, I agree and suggest diving into one further liberal arts course to round out your education: Not Giving a Shit What Other People Think 101. Did wonders for me. At least, it will when I finally pass.

    • dmarshall58

      I’m making a D- in that course myself, hence this post. My defensiveness leads me to clarify my position but never really alleviates my concerns about others’ opinions entirely. I guess it’s human nature to stand up and say “Hey, I’m doing something important too!” Wish I didn’t feel compelled to though… Thanks for commenting! –D

  22. People who have settled generally aren’t good at what they have chosen to do.

  23. I for my part welcome not only your appraisal of the ways in which the study of literature contributes to the search for truth, but also your envisioning of the ‘hard’ sciences as ‘softer’ than what they seem: as studies requiring the same type of creativity (dare I say poetry?) and yielding nothing but various readings (angles, as you call them) of the world. I guess that’s a side that’s fairly often neglected.

    • dmarshall58

      Absolutely, and I didn’t mean to defend my the study of literature as an alternative to science or math, which, as you say, require poetry of their own. I only meant to suggest that both hard and soft studies are valuable and don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I hate the idea that any study is lesser than another, since studying is inherently valuable. Thanks for reinforcing that idea, and thanks for commenting. –D

      • Thank you too for recognizing this; it’s a recognition many fail to make, whether they are students of English or some of the hard sciences, such as economics. Hence my being both an English major and an economics major, and hence too my seeming life-mission to point the idea out to economics scholars on the one hand and literary scholars on the other.

  24. I could not agree more nor put it more eloquently. “A way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality” is precisely how I feel about literature and indeed even in the ‘hard’ subjects with foundations in mathematical reasoning one frequently sees differing of opinion. Let’s look at constantly changing medical views, scientific updates. Science may give us understanding about the physical world but literature changes the world and gives insight to the people contained within it.

    Absolutely fabulous piece!!

  25. themodernidiot


    While all the niche-lovers run off to specialize, I will be the only one who can talk to each one of them in their own language.

    English majors-funner at parties.

  26. You are my hero for this. I studied English Literature with a focus primarily in Medieval Studies, plus a minor in Cultural anthropology. I constantly get asked, “Why study that?” “What do you plan on doing with that?” etc, etc. Someone always needs a person who knows how to use critical thinking and analytical skills- more importantly, someone who knows how to pen all of it out. I chose to study English, unlike many of my fellow graduates in the program who chose it because it was ‘easy,’ and those are the ones who never really excelled at the craft. Thank you again for so eloquently defending literature and the importance of studying it!

    • dmarshall58

      It seems a vicious circle: studying literature isn’t as valuable, so people come to it second, which makes it seem less valuable, which…. Wouldn’t it be nice to break out? We’d all like to have a well-trained brain, and the sort of training you’ve received is inherently valuable and shouldn’t need to be defended. We moderns could learn a great deal from the Medieval life, certainly. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  27. I majored in English (and took as many courses as I could in Old English and medieval literature) *and* in business. The students I worked with in both programs could never understand why I would take two such different majors – but they weren’t, really. Both of them require critical/analytical skills, good writing, and creativity, and both are equally important disciplines. Thanks for your thoughtful post on behalf of the English majors!

    • dmarshall58

      There are so many ways to train people’s intelligence. I agree with you that how you get there is much less important than the universally valuable skills you develop getting there. Thanks for your comment! –D

  28. I’m an engineer (for practical reasons) – but I did literature and loved it, the way it made me see new things in what I was reading. I don’t think there’s a need to defend your study at all – it’s a beautiful thing, and just as rigorous as any science education I’ve had.

    • dmarshall58

      An engineer who studied literature might have it all–the hard and the soft, the quantifiable and the qualifiable. Thanks for visiting and commenting! –D

  29. Yes! I remember being made fun of in high school English Literature classes for writing too much; being encouraged to take Chemistry then failing my exam because I was using my graphics calculator to see how many Lit quotes I could remember; being encouraged to study Law instead of Arts at university because it was ‘a better way to get a career’. Jokes on them because I am now 26, unemployed, studying Professional Writing and Publishing and writing blogs about books.
    Excellent post.

    • dmarshall58

      The most important aspect of your account, I think, is your recognizing what makes you feel most fulfilled. The working world contains too many people just doing a job, without the passion and devotion that arises from loving what you do. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  30. “I wish people understood hard sciences the way I understand literature, as a way of seeing, produced by a distinct sort of curiosity providing one valuable angle on reality.”

    ^ THIS. It’s amazing how many people downplay the virtues of taking up Literature. It’s generally regarded as useless. But I’d like to argue that the way I learned to approach the world through it helped me quite a lot. Much of my personal success these days can be traced back to my Literature degree. 🙂

    Thank you for writing this.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank YOU. I appreciate all the comments confirming the value literature, especially ones like yours that link literary study with serious purpose and success. Thanks for visiting. –D

  31. What a beautiful thought! I fully disagree with sacrifizing literature hours for science at school. Art and literature connect us the world of feelings, history, widen our perspectives, give us the experience we miss nowadays. I studied in Russia, where (at least in my times), equal amount of hours was dedicated to science, art and literature. I cannot imagine my life without art and literature, it is as imporant as air. Science is rather a way of earning for me, interesting but rather applied.

    • dmarshall58

      It’s amazing how many people I run into who tell me they’d like their second career to be teaching English and Literature. It’s just a shame most people regard it as “dessert,” rather than as the main course your Russian education made it. Thanks for your comment. –D

  32. Excellent post. The study and analysis of literature–and all arts–is a kind of thinking that is necessary for our continued humanity. I discussed something similar in a post I put on my blog last year after an especially disappointing semester at the community college where I teach. Here’s a link to it: http://chaszak.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/they-were-nothing/

    • dmarshall58

      I hope everyone reading here will follow the link to your excellent post. Your lament is too familiar to me, the painful dismissal of works I appreciate and admire is too familiar. I think it was Elie Wiesel who said that the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. I wish we could convince all our students how much art enriches human understanding and how much it awakens a fuller, more subtle and beautiful world. We have to satisfy for the students who catch on, and here’s hoping that you will encounter plenty of those to inspire you. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  33. northernmalewhite

    funny how education
    english is a glorious language with beautiful words and infinite possibilities
    those who cant see that
    cant see


  34. Pingback: Five [Awesome] Things I Read This Week, May 10th Edition | pinkbriefcase

  35. Pingback: A Defense of Studying Literature « ...and All the Rest

  36. Reblogged on …and All the Rest. Thank you for your fine insights!!

  37. Reblogged this on Kelsi Olivia Jackson and commented:
    this is such a great post. As a major in the “hard” sciences with a minor in the “soft” sciences, I find this to be overwhelmingly accurate.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks so much, and thank for reblogging these posts. I’m especially appreciative that people in the sciences see value in this post. It gives me reason to hope my specialty won’t become defunct… at least before I retire. –D

  38. I really loved this post, you offered great insight. I’m constantly getting asked why I’m studying English Literature at university but it’s so hard to explain to people who don’t see the value of literature in the way those enthused by the subject do, There’s nothing quite like the smell or the questions sparked by reading an old classic.
    I’ve recently started a new blog, any feedback would be much appreciated.
    qop xo

    • dmarshall58

      I will try to return your visit. Thank you for your generous comment. I like to think that university will set you up as a reader, writer, and thinker for life, and you may have the last laugh. In the meantime, you are probably also getting more pleasure from your studies. –D

  39. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d like to do away with the “hard vs. soft” distinction all together, because in all honesty its really meaningless. I chuckled at the way you started your post, because the dictionary definition works for “hard” science to a degree, but as you later point out, it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. At the university where I teach, we (I’m in social science) are separated by the terms “natural sciences” and “social sciences”, which is even more silly– if that’s the way they want to cut it, it should be either “a-social vs. social” (which kinda actually works, when it comes to the scientists themselves) or “natural vs. unnatural”! My colleagues and I call ourselves the unnatural scientists to be cheeky, but really, these labels are harmful. They obfuscate the point of science. Science is a method of inquiry, not a set of facts, plain and simple. When I challenge my students to think this way too, it’s like a weight is lifted off their shoulders, they get it, and then they get engaged. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had “natural science” students in my Intro to Psych class get annoyed when they learn the class is actually hard. But again, when I point out what I’ve stated here, most of them come around and get on board. There is never just one way to answer a question, no matter the content. To assume otherwise undermines the beauty and mystery of nature and does everyone a disservice. So thanks for stating as much in such a compelling manner.

    • dmarshall58

      I especially like your statement, “Science is a method of inquiry, not a set of facts, plain and simple. When I challenge my students to think this way too, it’s like a weight is lifted off their shoulders, they get it, and then they get engaged.” I’ve had the same experience in my class when a student comes around to seeing literature as challenging but fun. Personally, I’d be proud to be an “unnatural scientist,” as that would be I found a new approach to knowing and understanding. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. –D

  40. Great blog! Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that education’s meaning has changed, and now education equals jobs and nothing else. The value on education is not placed in being able to think for yourself, but rather showing your piece of paper, selling yourself, and trying to make money. I think the English major can be approached as one of the few majors left (depending on how you approach it) that allows one to think for themselves and not follow a step by step procedure….?

    • dmarshall58

      Yes, the big issue to me is broadening what we consider “practical education” to be. Education equals jobs, but, even in that equation, studying literature develops many work-related skills. If reading, writing, and thinking well becomes unnecessary in the workplace, we’re in serious trouble! Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  41. A very well stated defense! 🙂 This is by far the most clear article defending literature that I’m getting to read 🙂 If people understood that there is no hard and soft subject and that it all depends on what your brain is more tuned to understand and interpret then literature won’t have to suffer the fate of being touted to be a wasteful or unimportant or easy subject.

    • dmarshall58

      Well said. I worry sometimes that I’ll become like the docents at Williamsburg who says “This is a candlestick and here’s how it’s made” and have like you out there. We all need areas to shine. –D

  42. Last semester, I was directing a play at MIT. One evening, I arrived early and found an unknown student studying in the rehearsal room. I told him that he was welcome to stay for a while. Then I commented on his text book (some long title that had something to do with quantum physics). I commented that the text looked complicated. He laughed and said that is was a difficult class. He felt stupid because he had put off taking a difficult class as a senior when all of his friends were taking blow-off classes like Theatre their last semester. I have a PhD and an MA in Theatre. There, in one comment, was an entire generation’s attitude towards my field of study: a blow off. I laughed it off. I am impressed by people who understand physics and math and computer languages and all that (I do not have the mind set to do it). I am more than a little annoyed when people (including quite a few people I know socially) see my whole field to be little more than a joke. I have spend most of my life as a student and an teacher. My observation is that schools and universities will give lip service to the idea that the Arts are important, but they clearly see the ‘hard’ sciences as far more important.

    There is some poetic justice, though. Society and academia lump all the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects together when they are compared to something truly important like collegiate and professional sports. 🙂

    • dmarshall58

      How awful. I’ve had similar experiences but console myself remembering all the scientists and mathematicians I’ve seen struggle through English. They sometimes say their struggle doesn’t matter because the subject doesn’t matter or they say they don’t do well because they don’t care, but they’re rationalizing. And usually they’re smart enough to see that other people excel where they flounder. Perhaps your physics student visitor isn’t much of an actor. Maybe it’d be fun to invite him to participate in rehearsal. He might get the idea that a great actor is nearly as rare as someone who understands quantum physics. Thanks for visiting and commenting. And hang in there–you haven’t wasted your life, and I’m sure you’ve given many actors and audience members experiences they will remember always. –D

  43. History of Capitalism

    You should never have to defend studying the humanities. Education is about more than job skills or employability. Those things matter, of course, but the aspirations of philosophy, history or literature are ultimately of the highest order, and people who refuse to see that have given up on the prospect of a discourse that is truly close to heart or that could potentially open up a space for people to find voices with which to address the realities that we face daily. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • dmarshall58

      Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that employability is central to students. We seem obsessed with our fragility these days, have a clear sense of high stakes and grave consequences. It’s hard to defend anything that represents a greater risk when playing it safe–not making mistakes–in a central value in high school students aspiring to college and college students aspiring to jobs. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. –D

  44. Reblogged this on The Independent Thinker and commented:
    I think the next post I make is going to be about the necessity of the Liberal Arts… looking forward to it!

  45. Studying literature helps cultivate a way of seeing the world BEYOND the low-hanging hard fruit of logic and hard /applied sciences. By examining different written expressions of human being’s relationship with others, their environment, geography, Nature and struggles within self, is to see in a wholistic connected way of: psychology, biology, history, sociology, etc. You get the drift.

    Oh yea, I am an English major from long ago (3 decades). After a 2nd university degree in information sciences, over 40% of my career has been understanding and observing behaviours and ways of thinking among the health care professionals, engineers, geospatial specialists, etc. In the end, we all end up in approx. the same, head space, but some of us just a lot longer to get there because some people haven’t had the benefit of training their mind, their analytical skills to see and express their world in a multi-disciplinary way.

    • dmarshall58

      The usefulness of analytical reading isn’t such a hard sell–everyone needs to know how to read discerningly and thoughtfully. The tougher sell is convincing people how satisfying it can be. The best reason for learning to read well is that it helps you see more and better in all the writing you encounter. It’s an investment to learn to read closely, but it’s worth it. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  46. t2

    Literature also has a way of saying what you call ‘Hard Truth’. This can be seen in the works of Rabindranath Tagore.
    Science begins by asking questions. What does literature do? It also asks questions, tries to understand things, interpret, create.
    Even the concept of time machine was brought out first by the book ‘Time Machine’by H.G.Wells.
    Maybe when people will know about this marvelous connection between them they will start appreciating literature also.

    • dmarshall58

      There are a number of scientific writers I admire greatly, and you’re right that much of what we thought fanciful in earlier writers has come to pass. We don’t have a time machine yet, but Wells understood the increasing division between culture and corporatism. He found a more vivid way to say what might have missed readers without a story. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  47. I totally agree with you. I am an English major but not because I found ‘hard sciences’ difficult, I love math, by the way, but rather, I chose this way of seeing the world, through which I found to be more interesting. I guess it’s up to the English majors to show that literature is very much relevant today as it has been centuries ago.

    • dmarshall58

      Each area of study must resonate with a certain kind of mind, but it’d be wonderful if we all had a least a taste of the advantages of each approach. Some of the brightest scientists and mathematicians I’ve met loved reading as well. They seemed to understand what you do, that literature is just as relevant as their own specialties. Thanks for visiting. –D

  48. hallowedbier

    Alas I wanted to study literature but my parents didn’t want that and I needed the money so I ended up in engineering. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like engineering; I did like it at the time but I liked literature more.

    Excellent piece though. I grew up reading a lot and my interpretation of the world has been shaped somewhat by what I read.

    • dmarshall58

      It will never be too late to study literature and, as I often tell my students, you don’t need to be in a class to read thoughtfully. Engineering will give you a valuable perspective all your own too. I approve of every sort of study. Thanks for visiting and good luck. –D

  49. drnommy

    Beautifully written and true. I teach literature to college business students and many of them contact me, often years into their careers to observe that their Lit course(s) turned out to be the most useful after all. It teaches them how to think, how to understand others, how to draw inferences from incomplete and ambiguous information, and most importantly, how to figure out what the REAL questions are.
    And besides, howoften do facts and so-called ‘hard’ information turn out to be wrong?

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. The part of your comment that resonates most with me is how a literature class teaches students, “to draw inferences from incomplete or ambiguous information and, most importantly, how to figure out what the REAL questions are.” It’s so satisfying when a student sees something not entirely in the text but behind it. Seeing meaning that way means the student owns it, that it is as much theirs as the author’s. Thanks for visiting. –D

  50. Pingback: A Defense of Studying Literature | Love, Hate, Life

  51. Marjolein

    Well said! At uni we once spent a class on how people live by the stories we tell. If we’re not looking at all the possible stories that can be explored, life and how people view life’s possibilities would become more and more limited. I think this is why literature exists and why it’s so important people study it.

    • dmarshall58

      Some students have an almost instinctual sense of storytelling’s value, and those are the ones who enjoy literature most. They don’t mind that these books aren’t realistic or practical or relevant (overtly at least). They approach books as a sort of second-hand experience, and some of them count reading certain works as being some of the most illuminating times of their lives. I don’t get to see that as often as I’d like, but, when I do, its magical. Thanks for commenting. –D

  52. So very nice to see genuine love for literature sometimes! I still think back at the days when I applied for 1 psychology and 4 different literature courses at university, and got into the psychology course due to relevant extracurricular activities, even though I had a 91% overall comparative literature grade…. Sigh. But it’s always good to see other people who followed the dream I left behind and dedicated their life to literature, never once regretting it.
    Your post made me want to read your whole blog. That is an achievement by any standards. Thank you.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. The days when teaching is good, it’s very good, and I feel lucky to have devoted so much time to an art form I admire so deeply. I have an abiding interest in psychology too and wonder if the two ways of seeing feed each other–Shakespeare’s characters certainly deserve analysis, and so many writers’ motivations arise from what’s most unresolved in them. Thanks for your comment. I hope you’ll visit again. –D

      • I certainly noticed changes in the ways I perceive story-lines and characters, be it in movies or books, since I started my degree…. but this perspective change is probably more because of a general eye-opening to the world through my studies and my growing up, than a “psychological analysis” per se, which is not taught in undergrad psychology courses…. My course focuses mostly on developmental and cognitive psychology (language production and comprehension, memory, attention, thinking etc.), goes heavy on statistics, and we get drips of social psychology and anatomy, with the “lay” (?) conceptualisation of prominent psychological topics such as personality analysis or mental diagnostics being barely mentioned, just here and there popping up once in a while. Nevertheless I do believe that psychology can provide as a great analytic tool for understanding human interaction in any form, be it fictional or “real” – and I would enjoy my course a lot more if the topics covered were made more relevant, more applied, than just learning the ability to recite relevant theorist/theory/year/implication…. Maybe I should suggest that we learn about personality traits from Shakespearean characters or from Oscar Wilde, …. Ulysses for language comprehension/production and thinking, Flowers for Algernon for memory lectures, and read The Bell Jar or Wherther for studying emotions and moods. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be a must for discussing psychological disorders and their possible treatments along with the previous two books… and perhaps sneak in Death is My Trade when discussing Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s social psychology of obedience to authority and conformity to roles…. Ahh, the possibilities….
        Thank you for inviting so many people to (start) think(ing) about the role of literature and its meaning with your post.

  53. The point that you are making here is one that plenty of literary scholars out there would do well to take to heart. It’s not hard to look around either in academic scholarship or in the popular press to see literature scholars trying to bring the methods of so-called “hard sciences” to bear on literature. I am personally skeptical that statistical analyses, brain scans of readers, etc., as interesting as they may be, much advance the project of literary criticism. Unfortunately it is also not hard to find literary scholars who actually privilege instrumental rationality as a means of arriving at knowledge over the kinds of speculative methods that drive literary criticism. This line doesn’t seem terribly helpful when we see literature programs in particular and humanities programs in general, which are dirt cheap relative to other branches of higher education, show up on the chopping block.

    As a side note, it breaks my heart that some people feel family pressure to pursue one major over another. It may be that high tuition is making this problem worse. When I teach first years I make sure to tell them that their studies are for them, not for their parents or families, and so they should do what is right for them, whatever that may be. Personally, the best decisions I made as a student were the ones where I did exactly what my family told me not to do.

    • dmarshall58

      I find some of those hard studies of literature interesting as a point of reference or as another foot or hand hold for scaling a wall of understanding. It’s too bad, however, that literary study can’t thrive on its own merits. The assumption that everything can be understood quantitatively is dangerous. Not only do quantitative methods reveal only what can be measured but they also posit a less subtle, nuanced, and–I’d argue–beautiful world. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. –D

  54. Very well said. I started out in the sciences, and at one point wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. However, severe chemical allergies changed my course . . . for the better, I believe. I discovered that what I loved about science — the analysis, the problem solving, the complexity and variety — could be found in literary studies. For me there’s nothing so satisfying as dissecting a text, and then exploring its inner workings. Literature, and the study of literature, are absolutely essential because they not only give us insight into the minds and worlds of others’, but also inspire a degree of (self)reflection necessary for a broader understanding the the human experience.

    • dmarshall58

      It’s the self-reflection that has always given me the greatest pleasure. You can’t understand the world without understanding the instrument you use to perceive and understand it. The vicarious experience of literature is invaluable. Though I’ve never been through what characters have, I appreciate being brought to consider their experiences. That’s where literature students grow most. Thanks for commenting. –D

  55. Dear Mr Marshall
    A fellow alum from high school shared this post with me and I very much enjoyed it. I found you summed up a lot of things that I have thought (incoherently) to myself for a long time.

    I will attend medical school in the fall and have known since high school biology that I wanted to do something relating to physiology. Few things make me as happy as the kidney, go figure. However I knew I did not want a pre-professional major. I wanted a liberal arts major. I ended up with two: English literature and French literature. And those classes have involved some of the deepest, most difficult, and most rewarding thinking I have ever and perhaps will ever engage in.

    I have never once thought of my science classes as superior to my literature classes. And I have never once called myself anything other than an English and French literature major. A classmate junior year asked me, “why don’t you just tell people you’re pre-med instead? It sounds more impressive.” The first reason is that I am proud of my humanities majors; I work hard in them and I love them. The second reason is that I feel that I can tell a lot about a person (and whether or not I want anything to do with them) based on how they respond to my choice in majors. If they use my favorite of the condescending turns of phrase, “and what are we going to do with that?” then I try to avoid them as much as possible. If their first question is something like, “what time period do you like best,” then I figure they must be okay. Sadly the second of the two responses is far less common. Regularly, I feel I have to vigorously defend my choice to major in the liberal arts because they are seen as “not useful.” I find this attitude deeply upsetting and also, to be honest, baffling. How could someone possibly not see the value in reading Auden? How can someone (with a pulse) not be moved by Tess of D’Urbervilles? After reading your post, I still do not understand why the humanities are devalued and dismissed, but at least I have new arguments in my arsenal for when I come to their defense.

    • dmarshall58

      My father taught medical school and served on admission committees a few times. He loved applicants from the humanities because he thought they’d arrive with greater empathy for patients. He wasn’t much of a reader himself, but, as a visual artist, he understood the place and purpose of creativity and self-expression. He thought those skills were equally relevant in medicine.

      Of course, he also liked students who could communicate and often groused about those who knew everything and couldn’t find a way to impart what they knew clearly or understandably.

      You will be a great medical student and doctor because you are a good student. I don’t see that there’s any difference in specialties when it comes to achieving that end–if you are serious and devoted, you will learn how to learn.

      It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  56. iSergioC

    This is so true. I want to study English Literature when I finish with my current degree. Every time I’ve expressed this, though, people are quite keen to tell me how I should just study something else which they regard as ‘something practical’. I reckon it is sad how ‘practical’ things like Science and Maths have just taken over the space Literature and Philosophy used to occupy.

    It is great to see how someone else feels alike. You’ve just earned a new reader. Also, beautifully written.

    Best wishes,

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I can’t believe Literature and Philosophy will ever go away. There are too many of us who find them fascinating. As long as people like you are courageous in following your heart as well as your head, literary studies are safe. Now, if only othe people respected them more… –D

  57. C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ debate.

    • dmarshall58

      A really interesting connection (I’m embarrassed to say) I didn’t know until your comment. My limited reading of Snow’s idea is that he’s speaking at least partly from class consciousness, that there’s something elite and effete about literary studies that scientists (typically of more humble origins) avoid. He said scientists have “the future in their bones” whereas people who study literature look backward.

      I’m not sure about his generalizations or his prescriptions, but he was prophetic in understanding that science and humanities speak to different audiences and that moving people to “commonality,” to membership in both audiences, would be vital. I think, however, he was talking about literary people bowing to the value of science more. Now that science rules the roost (disputable, I know, but evident from university budgets) I’d argue that need has reversed.

      Some thinkers suggest that we now have a third culture as well, those who seek to explain human behavior in scientific terms, as psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, behavioral evolutionary biology, etc. Those areas seem really fascinating to me, but they can’t replace the unaccountable. “The unaccountable” as a category isn’t the same as the “not-yet-accounted-for,” and the humanities should always have a place grappling with what’s impossible to pin down exactly, if only to remind us of our hubris in believing everything ultimately knowable.

      Thanks. –D

  58. Humanity thrives on stories and music. Religion is nothing without story. The reading and reflecting on literature is actually as urgent as anything scientists are asked to do. It is precisely the thought experiments of literature that give us perspective for living our lives. Marginalization of literature is a symptom of a growing difficulty with living and a growing unwillingness to even try. For my thoughts on fantasy literature in relationship to faith see http://bit.ly/XGIYHB

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you for your comment and the link. I like the idea that literary studies could be urgent–I don’t think anyone sees them that way anymore, but people did once see them as essential, back when living a good life, instead of a satisfying one, was more central. –D

  59. Perfectly true. The stigma put on the fine arts is sad. Therein lies some of out greatest thinkers.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. We have good thinkers in all sorts of studies, and I’d celebrate them all… just not before or after others! –D

  60. What a great post. I am a Masters in Literature working with scientists. I am posting this on the work fridge tomorrow!

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. I hope they won’t regard it as a criticism of what they do, which is vital, interesting, and brilliant. I’d never put literature before science–I’d just like to put them together and not diminish the importance of one in favor of the other. –D

  61. i agree. science may help us live life easier but art and literature gives us the purpose to live.

  62. kathryn

    Reblogged this on Jellyfishpie's Blog and commented:
    I love this! I’m in my first year of my English Literature degree and it’s so encouraging to see that it can be valued as highly as physics/ mathematics 🙂

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks for reblogging. You’re in such an exciting stage of your education–English teachers sometimes list all the books they’ve read that they wish could read again for the first time. I’m envious. Thanks for visiting. –D

  63. This is fantastic! Very well said. I graduated with a degree in Philosophy (minor in English–double whammy!) and in my experience the most common complaint with taking degrees in these fields is that there is “nothing to do” with it after, no career path to pursue (other than teaching). But I’ve always believed that studying what you love does not mean you have to be devoid of practical skills or that you do not believe in finding a “real job” because you want to sit in your underwear and read all day. In my job I’ve met plenty of English graduates who were great at what they do (events, policymaking, government service) and still love literature. Who says we can’t do both? Thanks for writing this great piece! 🙂

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you for your reply. All education is really learning to think, and the training you get as a reader, writer, and thinker in literature classes seems broadly applicable to me. I don’t mean to demonize the sciences either–the training they receive is just as valuable and just as relevant–it just ruffles my feathers to hear people say my chosen field is impractical and idealistic. Thanks for visiting. –D

  64. Pingback: A Defense of Studying Literature | NiceQuietKindOfCrazy's Blog

  65. Great post. My husband is an English teacher and I am a chemist, so I often find myself defending the ‘boring hard-science’ personality types. There was just a post in the NYT about literature making us more moral, it wasn’t a great article but you should check out the 400+ angry comments people posted on it.

    • dmarshall58

      The comments are the best part. I heard from a number of people who quoted C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” essay, which makes essentially the opposite argument to mine, that scientific thinking isn’t valued as it should be and takes second-fiddle to the humanities. I guess I don’t understand why there need to be fiddles at all. I suspect there’s plenty of envy of the other side among scientists and humanity types, but we focus on the opposition because that’s what we do these days. All I’d ever want is mutual respect. Tell your husband to appreciate both sides. Thanks for visiting and commenting. –D

  66. I love the way you said it. I wish I had the opportunity to go far with literature. As a foreigner, I always get excited about literature and somebody will stop me and say to me, but you cannot do anything with it. I felt so either because of my accent, But in my heart, there is no course like literature. I love to have a passionate argument about going to school, and studying social science; but somebody somehow will remind me again how I cannot do so much with it. I love how you defended the best course ever created (Literature), without literature, I won`t be where I am today. Thank

    • dmarshall58

      Maybe everyone who studies literature gets the question, “What will you DO with it?” It’s tough to give an answer over and over, but the shortest answer is, “Everything. I’m learning how to read, interpret, think, and articulate my ideas in writing.” Unfortunately, many of the people who ask don’t really want an answer. Perhaps even employers would regard that response as evasive.

      I’m not against more “practical” majors–they teach you to think in an entirely different and equally valuable ways. I’m just arguing for a little more respect for the humanities. It seems such a shame when people, like you, are made to feel guilty about pursuing the studies that give you greatest pleasure and the greatest feeling of skill. Best of success to you and thanks for visiting. –D

  67. Pingback: Walking Around The Year | Signals to Attend

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