Why Read Literature?

Dear Aristotle,

Why should we read literature? I am a second-year engineering student at El Camino College in LA and I feel like I don’t learn anything from my English classes. I don’t see how Charles Bukowski or Herman Melville can teach me about balancing a budget or about getting a job after graduation. It’s discouraging to have to read their books when all I am trying to do is work for SpaceX.

Thank you,

Matt


Dear Matt,

Answering your question requires answering this question: what is the point of a college degree, and what is a college degree supposed to signify? Colleges/universities were originally designed to be something much different from simply “job-training.” Centuries ago, in the United States and elsewhere, there were a few different paths young adults might take after they finished their government mandated education. A college/university degree was an option originally designed for a very small portion of the population that specifically was looking to do something more than job training.  This specialized path typically taken by elite members of society was supposed to help young adults expand their mind in a particular sort of way, a way that improved their intellect, imagination, and their overall personal character. Persons who did not go to college often went into a training program for a specific career, or they might immediately begin working a trade that required no training.

Society and universities have, of course, changed a lot overtime. But most universities still consider themselves more than a job training factory. For pure job-training, there are various certificates, trade-schools, and associates degrees that are designed to signify nothing other than experience and skills in the given trade. However, many community colleges are now designed as a steppingstone into a four-year college, i.e., the first step toward a BA degree. BA degrees carry on in the tradition of graduating students the have been through training to improve not only employment skills, but their overall intellect, imagination, and character. Literature and other general education requirements are meant to do just this, i.e., to shape student’s creativity, critical thinking skills, and to result in an overall improvement in the student as an intellectual and as a human being. Other parts of the university education are designed to help achieve career goals, but not the general education component. 

As for myself, I see literature as an important part of developing the mind and developing emotional character. When we read emotional narratives, for instance, we practice going through important psychological experiences like being immersed in empathy, sympathy, and admiration. This type of emotional “practice” helps prepare us for life situations in which these emotions are appropriate, and in which manifesting them is an integral part of being a good friend, family member, and simply a good person. 

Of course, there are some criticisms that have been made about the modern university modal. One criticism is that not all students want or benefit from the non-job training part of an education. These students, the critics contend, should not have to spend time and money on classes that do not help achieve their personal goals. However, this seems like it is just as much the fault of the private businesses that require university degrees as it is the fault of the university. If most companies/careers allowed advancement without a college degree, then students who were not interested in one could fast track to their career. However, many, many, companies and lines of work do require a BA degree. 

So why would jobs that don’t seem to have anything to do with general education classes require their employees to have a general university education? Well, this Washington Post article makes the case that what has set United States companies apart from the rest of the world in creative industries like technology and media has been a liberal arts education that develops the mind as a whole, and not merely technical skills. You can think of it like this: the best athletes in the world, the Olympians and world champions, rarely limit their training to their specific sport. The best basketball players and the best boxers do not merely play basketball and box. Instead, they do weight training, sprints, and endurance cardiovascular training. This develops their entire body as an athlete, and ultimately helps them at their sport. According to some, the same sort of thing is true for working at SpaceX. So read the article above and see if you find it convincing. If not, then maybe write to the higher ups at SpaceX and ask why they require or favor a college degree in the first place, as they are well aware that much of the experience has little to do the sort of skills used in many of their positions.

Yours,

Aristotle

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