[Note: this semester I’m teaching a Survey of World Literature class to Nursing students. I designed the class with a Medical Humanities focus. This blog post is a modified version of an announcement I posted to the class about the importance of this class to their degrees.]
Big picture: college degrees can very generally be divided into two types. First, degrees that prepare students for a vocation, and next, degrees that develop student capacities, skills, or knowledge in a broader sense. The latter kind of degree falls under the designation of a “liberal arts degree.” Liberal arts study was developed in the current university system when all university education was designed to train priests but was still seen as valuable to people who did not wish to be ordained. Liberal arts study — originally grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — was then pursued to give free (liberalis) men the training they needed to conduct business in the world. Liberal arts study, therefore, was the original business degree.
An Associate of Science in Nursing is a vocational degree — it trains students to do a job. Paralegal degrees, other medical science degrees, criminal justice degrees, and other similar AS degrees do the same thing. They provide narrow, focused courses of study that provide job training in a specific field. Bachelor degrees, on the other hand, seek to produce more broadly developed graduates: people who have developed certain skills and attained more advanced levels of knowledge both within and outside of their vocational training.
Vocational degrees are great. In the right fields, they lead to decently paying jobs with a minimal of student debt or time to degree. They are limited, though. Because they aren’t portable to other fields, what happens if you hate your job? Or what happens if the tech changes, or your job goes away? Suddenly, your education is useless because it’s been so narrow, and you need to go back for retraining.
In a very broad sense, college classes designed to produce more advanced students tend to do two things: impart knowledge and develop skills. Almost all classes do at least a little of both, but some classes are very heavily weighted toward skills development (like a Drawing or a Painting class, or some other fine art class), while other classes are very heavily weighted toward imparting knowledge, like a chemistry or anatomy class.
Classes that are weighted toward imparting knowledge teach students information that they expect students to believe. An anatomy class, for example, expects students to name many (many) different parts of the human body, and they’re expected to know these names as facts. Sunday School classes or sermons are similar — we’re taught things there because we’re expected to believe them, because they are presented as truth.
Classes that are weighted toward skills could be seen as developing different kinds of not just skills but literacy: drawing and painting classes increase your visual literacy, or in other words, not just your ability to see in more detail, but to critically interpret what you see. Classes that are reading intensive, such as history, English, and philosophy, develop a variety of cognitive skills, all of them involving the ability to process a lot of incoming and outgoing text quickly. History tends to focus on concrete objects of study, philosophy on abstract, while the study of literature tends to combine the two: it teaches us to analyze concrete, creative products using abstract conceptual structures.
Based on this understanding of what a literature class does, I’d like to encourage students, and everyone else, really, not to think of literature classes as classes that teach students information they ought to believe. Literature classes aren’t anatomy classes, and they aren’t Sunday School classes. Literature classes are somewhat off the map in terms of either kind of thinking as they are usually designed to combine these two purposes. Literary study imparts knowledge for the purpose of developing skills. The skills imparted by literary studies are partly cognitive, partly relational, and partly academic. For example, reading and writing skills are enhanced through literary study, and they are foundational cognitive skills that contribute to the development of more advanced ones. Literature classes regularly ask students to learn to think in very different ways by reading complex texts. Yes, that’s hard. Students who struggle and have to reread often aren’t at a disadvantage, though. Going through that process is a sign of student learning.
On the relational side, literature classes ask questions like, “How do other people think, what do other people think, why do they think that way, and why is it important, especially to them?” These “other people” may be fictional, real, or mythological, but the literature class doesn’t care: readers have to exercise their judgment, or interpretive skills, equally on all three without ever knowing what the right answer is.
That is one of the biggest benefits of a literature class: each work of literature is like a real life case study in that it presents characters whose words and actions must be interpreted without anyone ever being able to tell us that we got it right. The act of literary interpretation in this way mimics the kind of real life reasoning that we do on a daily basis as we try to understand other people. Literary interpretation just slows down the process and makes it more explicit and deliberate rather than on the spot.
In one narrow sense, literature classes do teach facts they expect students to believe, such as the approximate date of composition of a work, the geographic location in which it was composed, its authorship, etc. Even if we don’t know who the author of a literary work is, we might regard it as a fact that we don’t know who the author is. All of these facts fall under the category of “literary history” and make up the known facts about a literary work with the caveat that, as is the case with all historical artifacts, what we think we know now can change later with a new discovery, as in many of the sciences.
But most literature classes only pay minor attention to literary history. It’s background information. For the most part, literature classes do not teach anything they expect students to believe. They present interpretable material and ask students to interpret it, and to do so coherently, but they never claim that any one justified or coherent interpretation is the right one. Note my caveats, though: justified or coherent. In other words, any valid interpretation according to the range of possible meanings of the work is a right one, but there’s not just one. Meaning in complex literary works is of course not completely subjective, nor is it arbitrary: it is limited to the range of meanings made possible by the words on the page.
For example, the word “green” might refer to a color, to someone who is envious or ill, to someone who is new, or to someone who is pro-environment, which means that the word “green” can produce a number of different meanings in a single context, sometimes even more than one at the same time. This idea of a literary work, or even a single word, meaning multiple things at the same time is “polysemy.” It’s an idea found in Plato’s works and very strongly emphasized by the Medievals in Biblical interpretation from the time of Origen, continuing to the present in the current Catholic catechism. Despite the long-known polysemous quality of language, the word “green” can never be a direct lexical substitute for “tall,” so while literary interpretation isn’t fixed, simple, or singular, like the names of our different bones, it isn’t arbitrary. Learning to negotiate a field of information that is neither completely subjective, completely arbitrary, nor completely fixed is one of the several important cognitive skills developed by literary study.
So I’d like us all to avoid approaching literary works assigned in a class with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to believe something. I’d like us to approach these literary works with the mindset that the class is trying to get us to understand how other people think — people in different cultures or people who lived in past versions of our own culture. The medical humanities-focused world literature class I developed uses world literature to seek to understand how people thought about their bodies, about health and sickness, and about caregiving in past cultures around the world. This study does involve a seeking after fact, but these facts are at least in part the product of interpretation. They aren’t just presented in a simple and straightforward way on the page just waiting to be consumed and regurgitated.
As a result, yours or my own or anyone else’s agreement or disagreement with any of the ideas presented in any literary text are completely irrelevant to the purposes of most literature courses, because these courses are not really designed to get students to believe something in particular — aside from facts related to basic literary history described above. It’s asking students to interpret something that’s different from our usual way of thinking to help us better understand people who think in ways that are different from us, and to help us in a general sense be more advanced thinkers — which is a skill that students can take with them into any profession.