The study of literature is arguably the most universal of all the traditional disciplines. A primary reason is that it encompasses all other approaches to knowledge. When we read we naturally take in history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, art, and even the sciences.
However, more than that, literary studies has made human beings and life itself the central focus of its attention. It addresses the great questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? How should I live? Is there a coherent intelligence that governs the universe? Everything about the essential nature of human life has been asked and considered in the great literary works, those from the beginning of time up to and including the literature being created at this very moment.
Literature, moreover, doesn’t offer pat answers but rather places readers in the stream of human interactions as ancient as time itself. When we read the life of Odysseus, of Hamlet, of Hester Prynne, or Mrs. Dalloway, we are not given an explanation for their behavior, a lesson on the meaning of life, or a simple formula on morality. What we are given is an experience forged out of the act of living. Rare is the text that claims the whole truth, but each of the great literary works from antiquity to the present day contains a significant slice of that truth. And as we navigate the wealth of knowledge contained in the literary canon, our minds naturally grow not only in truth but in the other virtues espoused in the world’s finest literature, including beauty, love, compassion, human dignity, and universal fellowship.
Cultural literacy – This is the mark of an educated human being. It signifies an exposure to the most important ideas of history and the best aesthetic artifacts. Dictionary.com defines cultural literacy as “knowledge of history, contributions, and perspectives of different cultural groups, including one’s own, for the understanding of reading, writing, and other media.” It is this area of knowledge that the study of literature satisfies so well.
Reading with depth and profundity – Most people go through life with the ability to read only the surface of a text, and by text we mean not only literary works, but art, music, film, information from popular and serious media, and even the general category we call life. But in the study of literature, a student naturally acquires the ability to absorb a work’s finest detail, to understand its ideas on numerous levels, and to express those ideas coherently to others. This skill in reading is one that translates to every field of life.
The ability to analyze – It is one thing to take in information, another to evaluate it and find what is useful and what is not. A regular part of the literary education is to examine the elements of a text from every possible angle so that the skill of analysis becomes second nature, an ability that places the literature graduate at home with almost any field of knowledge. The study of literature naturally develops critical thinking and active learning through these processes.
The ability to write well – Literary studies trains students to discover elements in a text that need additional attention, to convert such topics into an academic argument, to research and support that argument, and to defend it in a comprehensive and convincing manner.