Monday, July 13, 2015

Liberal Arts 5: The Value of Literature and Writing

Fifth post in my series on the importance of the liberal arts for civilization. Previous posts include:

A Vision for the Liberal Arts
The Value of Philosophy
The Value of History
The Value of Music and Art

1. Philosophy reflects on all things. History encompasses all things. Literature can cover all these things, to the extent that they can be encapsulated in words.

Many animals communicate. But humans have a unique capacity to communicate in writing.

2. Writing and rhetorical skills are of course of great utilitarian value. Written communication is one of the core 30 values for the State of Indiana. Grammar and rhetoric were part of the original medieval triviuum (along with logic, which is part of philosophy).

A person who can communicate and persuade is a person who has leadership skills. A person who can communicate has business skills. A person with poor writing skills or poor communication skills is someone who will create unnecessary obstacles for him or herself in a job and frankly in relationships.

So we are agreed. Writing is one of the "three Rs" that needs to be learned somewhere.

2. The public schools do not appear to be doing a particularly good job of this learning goal, at least not if what we're seeing in college is any reflection. Frankly, even the writing we get in the seminary is sometimes atrocious, and it's supposed to be graduate level.

The trend right now is to push college gen eds down into high school, to shorten college by counting some of what students do in high school for gen eds (or perhaps bringing college down into high school, better, although we'll see how many students can actually succeed). Society will do what society will do. But high schools are producing a less competent product than ever across the board. I don't blame the high schools, mind you. I blame the homes and society from which those students are coming.

So take away college general education requirements in the name of debt if you must. You will just create a more stupid society than it already is, and it's not particularly good now.

3. So I come to the value of literature in general. "Reading" is of course another of the three Rs. I believe high schools are doing a fair job of producing students who are able to read. We shouldn't have to deal with that task in college.

So by "the value of literature" I mean the value of knowing some of the great literature of human history, including the present. Literature is related to art and music as expressions of humanity. There are inherent limitations to writing. You could argue that art and music are more powerful in one respect because they are less tied down to words.

But literature creates worlds. Literature can lasso the power of human experience and emotion. Literature can capture the struggles, excitements, and fears of an age or a moment in time. Poetry, like music or art, can channel human experience in the most powerful of ways.

Again, not all eyes can see or ears hear. But all who are fully human should at least have a taste to see. Even the tone deaf can appreciate a well-placed poem at a funeral. Those who can't are the hardened, those for whom the coldness of life has frozen off an essential part of their true humanity.

4. Poetry and fiction can be far more powerful than the literal and prosaic. An ignorant generation of mid-twentieth century fundamentalists supposed that the Bible is all meant to be taken literally. What then of the "trees shall clap their hands" (Isa. 55:12)? What power does some literal version of this poetic metaphor have--"it's going to be really great" just doesn't cut it.

And what of the mythical imagery of Psalm 74:13-14? "You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness." Parables are fictional stories that are not one bit less true for not being stories of things that actually happened in history. Rather, their truth is more focused.

A lot of Christians don't get genres in the Bible, and the result is a whole lot of needless fights. An understanding and appreciation of literature would go a long way.

5. To understand how literature works is to understand how movies and television work, and these are some of the most powerful influencers of our day. Good literature creates a world. A whole generation was formed by Harry Potter. Was that generation as impacted by the Bible? Probably not, if we are honest with ourselves.

Times have changed. The West stopped being an oral culture around the year 1500. We are perhaps in the process of ceasing to be a literary culture and becoming a media culture. But story is still fundamental and common to the human psyche.

When we talk about the value of literature, we mean the importance of story and verbal form for humanity. The forms are changing, so no doubt the approach to literature will change too. But the place of these quintessentially human ways of expressing the world are part of civilization. How do we preserve in verbal form who we are and how we feel?

That is the provenance of "literature."

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