In this era of austerity pushed by (predominantly conservative) politicians, education is generally the first target. This short term thinking, of course, fails to account for the long term benefits of an educated populace. Or, to be cynical, perhaps it does account for those benefits, but sees them as drawbacks (“I love uneducated voters”, as a current Republican stated while campaigning). Of all the academic fields, the arts & humanities are the primary targets. And, often, when someone decides to go into my field (English Literature), they get grilled by family members because of it.
First, people tend to mistake English for grammarians. That is, I think obviously, not all we do. In fact, we rarely do grammar as students in the field, though many of us teach it as grad students & adjuncts, because we have to.
Second, people generally don’t understand why we bother studying literature. It’s all just reading, after all. Or they think that we all focus solely on “Great Books” and ignore popular works.
To break this, I want to look at a piece of literature, briefly, to discuss the power of literature. In this case, a piece of popular writing: Richard III, by William Shakespeare.
People tend to forget that Shakespeare was the J.K. Rowling of the late-16th and early-17th centuries. He was popular. He wrote pop culture plays. He wrote for money (through his part ownership of the acting company).
But, on to Richard.
Our popular image of Richard III is that of a conniving, treasonous, hunchback who ran from his battle at Bosworth against Henry VII.
This is the image that Shakespeare presents and it has been part of pop culture and history books for at least the last century.
However . . .
Shakespeare used Thomas More’s history as his major source for the play. This is of great importance.
More was part of the court of Henry VIII and wrote under him. That Henry was, of course, the youngest son of Henry VII, who deposed Richard III by force. Likewise, Shakespeare was writing under Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII.
To keep things brief, both More and Shakespeare were writing propaganda pieces to enhance the reputations of the ruling family and cement their claim to the throne (by deposing a bad, murderous, hunchback king).
Shakespeare’s literary account was bought by generations of historians and sold in classrooms for even more generations.
Eventually, enough historians, and others, looked at other primary sources, ones contemporary with Richard. They looked at portraits, legal documents, and other records. They found that Richard was fairly popular, first as a noble and later as a king. Because of this work, historians have, by and large, changed their view of Richard, but it’s still filtering down.
All because of a work of literature.
This is part of why we study literature.
“What should we learn? Literature. [. . .] If literature is kept alive, then the dao, the moral way, is kept alive; and if the dao is kept alive, then teachings of the sages and worthies are kept alive. Thus we have much to gain from studying literature. Moreover, its influence can be more inspiring [than being in the presence of a great man] because it calls upon us to articulate our ideas and beckons us to draw analogies. Thus what literature offers us is more than something to rely on: it takes us by the hand and bolsters us up; it holds us by the arm to get us on our way.”
– Cheng Yaotian (18th c. Chinese scholar); from Analects, Confucius (2014 Penguin edition)