Studying literature - why the arts are vital

Last updated 10:22 23/08/2013

There's always been a stigma attached to people who study "the arts". In recent years, the trend for governments and corporations, even here in New Zealand, has been to push young people toward studying for "practical" degrees. Useful stuff, you know, hard sciences, mathematics, things that will make engineers and doctors and scientific innovators out of us all. So the theory goes.

I actually think it's a mistake to discourage, or at least not to encourage, young people to read and study literature. A lot of teenagers will moan that Shakespeare is incomprehensible, or that Jane Eyre is boring, but teens tend to complain about everything. What they like and dislike could change at any random moment according to the shift of their hormones. Yet there are certain lessons that can stay for life.

To me, literature, and in a wider sense, the arts, is the soul of society. There is no doubt that hard science and research plays a vital role in our understanding of the world we live in, and in the improvement of the human lifespan and the quality of said life.

But we're not born to become just cogs in a machine. What actually makes everything worthwhile is the promise of pleasure as a reward. And as a reader, and the writer of a blog about the joys of reading, I cannot think of a more enriching, rewarding experience than literature.

Let me be clear that I'm not talking about Literature with a capital L. The definition of what is considered literature changes with the times anyway, so the Fifty Shades of today could be considered tomorrow's Anais Nin.

When I speak of the study of literature, I mean books of any genre that interests the reader, that can provoke a certain amount of thought. It's more about imparting the importance of being able to read and think critically about what you've just read, to have opinions, but also to be able to voice why you have them, and structure a clear, logical, reasoned argument.

This, I think, is one of the most important things that the study of literature gives to its students.

Yes, not everyone enjoys reading fiction, but not everyone enjoys science and mathematics, and what I don't agree with is the study of those subjects being pushed as the be-all and end-all of the education system.

Geniuses like Einstein and Hawking were and are all readers, not just of heavy scientific textbooks but also of literature.

I've always believed that within the pages of books lies the collective wisdom of our society. Even in the lightest of fiction, those throwaway airport books with throwaway plots, there is still truth to be found, be it in a particularly piercing observation of someone's character, or the way death can define a life.

Literature inspires genius and creativity, and that, I believe, makes it worthy of being placed alongside the sciences and arts and given equal importance. That it is not is shortsighted, and an indictment of the current climate of world politics.

Do you think the study of literature is important?

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