Education Superintendent Mick Zais’ proposal to make English literature optional for non-college-bound students looks troublingly familiar (“Farewell English Lit?” March 9). I was raised in a socialist European state where kids just entering their teens were sorted into two state-run education mills: Gymnasium kids presumably would go on to a university degree; all others, usually the troubled and not-so-bright ones, would end their schooling in the Realschule. Gymnasium kids were challenged with the liberal arts (literature, philosophy, history, languages); the others were taught “practical” skills, such as handicrafts and personal finance.
The vast majority were like the state-raised worker bees in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: equipped with a very specific skill set, and taught to love it. They’ll never dream of reading a book or discussing ideas, because they’ve never been taught to value books and ideas.
Education deadens souls if it seeks to construct a human being for a utilitarian end rather than educate a thoughtful human being for life. Our society is increasingly utilitarian: It tells us to value profit, efficiency, speed and connectivity. Literature is unprofitable, inefficient and slow, and encourages people to unplug and think. Dr. Zais is simply burying an idea many now consider useless.
But what is that “useless” old idea that so stubbornly insists on teaching English literature — along with the other liberal arts of a general education — to all? It goes back to the liberating push for mass education in Reformation times, when people such as William Tyndale wanted the humblest ploughboy to be able to read the Bible for himself. The big idea was that the world and all of history is the theater in which God displays his glory, and all humans were created with dignity in God’s image to think, imagine, know and cherish things of greater ultimate significance than how to balance their checkbooks.
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English literature involves much more than how to “analyze plot development in an 18th century British novel,” as Dr. Zais puts it, although there’s value in that.
A Riverbanks Zoo sign reads: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Literature’s relevance to life needs no defense; life is lit’s great theme. We need teachers with passion and ability to help students value this great theme. Then perhaps those who set budget and curriculum will too.
Associate Professor of English and Humanities
Columbia International University