I suppose every teacher faces the question, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” Lord knows I asked it enough when it came to math. I get it a few times each year in my English classes, especially regarding the literature we read. I’d like to answer the question here.
History, science, and yes, math, will teach you facts. Some of those facts may benefit you later in life. Some won’t. Literature will teach you about truths. If you open your mind to it, literature will teach you things you can use every day. It will teach you about the world, about your friends, and about yourself.
Will you face the decision of whether or not to kill a king so you can take his place like Macbeth did? Not likely. Will you have a time in your life when you have to choose whether or not to do something you know is wrong in order to achieve personal gain? Oh yeah, you will. Perhaps you’re a colder fish than Macbeth (or his wife) and it will never bother you that you hurt someone else to help yourself … but I have my doubts.
Maybe the world of Winston Smith’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will never happen. Or maybe we’re already halfway there. Hopefully reading the book will make you ask what you want from your government. Maybe it will even motivate you to act.
Who can’t identify with little hairy-footed Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit? Who among us has not underestimated the value of another person and been proven wrong? Who hasn’t yearned for adventure but feared we weren’t really capable? We won’t fight a dragon, or even hungry trolls, but we can stand up to bullies and fight the corruption caused by others if we remind ourselves of Bilbo’s courage.
Not all of us are the light-skinned granddaughters of former slaves speaking in a southern black dialect, like Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But how many of us have had boyfriends or girlfriends (or husbands or wives) who weren’t right for us? How many of us have dreamed of romance and gone down the wrong path looking for it? Janie does that, and in the end she not only finds romance, but something even better. It’s a good thing to remember when our love lives depress us.
The 1930s world of Jean Louise Finch is gone, but if you think we can’t learn from the adventures of Scout, Jem, and Dill, you’re not looking beyond the page. Every person has value, whether it’s Boo Radley or Tom Robinson. (Okay, Bob Ewell is questionable.) This book taught me so much about how to think about and treat other people when I first read it in about 1980. It can do the same for you today. I bet you know a Boo or a Tom … or maybe a Dill.
You think you have it bad because the rent’s due, your car payment is late, or you can’t afford those new Jordan shoes because you got your hours cut at work? The Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath can teach you about real hardship and what matters in life. Jim Casey will make you think about spirituality and Tom Joad will inspire you when you need it most. If you let them.
If you approach the great works of literature with an open mind and a willingness to fill those fictional characters with something of yourself and draw something of what their authors put into them into you, you’ll enrich your life and inform you decisions. If you approach it as, “I have to read another 10 pages of this stupid book for English class” then you’re not getting anything but a grade … and in my class probably not a very good one.