At the University of Dallas (UD)—a What Will They Learn?™ “A” school and my undergraduate alma mater—the most significant part of the core curriculum is the Literary Tradition sequence. Undergraduates take four literature classes, beginning with Homer’s Iliad in their first semester and ending with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in the fourth. Having had this strong foundation in world literature, I was startled to discover that only 37.5 percent of colleges surveyed by What Will They Learn?™ require students to take a literature course.
Many factors contribute to this gap in general education, but a consistent cause is unbalanced distribution requirements. In many colleges and universities, literature is lumped into larger categories, like “Language, Philosophy and Culture” at Texas public universities. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board defends this requirement, stating that “[c]ourses in this category [Language, Philosophy and Culture] focus on how ideas, values, beliefs, and other aspects of culture express and affect human experience. Courses involve the exploration of ideas that foster aesthetic and intellectual creation in order to understand the human condition across cultures” (emphasis added).
It is true that literature conveys ideas, but that is a sadly diminished understanding of its value and why literature should have its own requirement as an integral part of any general education program.
The study of literature is of course an opportunity to learn about an author’s time and his or her response to life, which is cultural history. It has practical applications too. A healthy diet of great prose and poetry provides a diverse vocabulary, nourishes effective writing, and develops powerful rhetorical skills.
Yet literature goes beyond reading for philosophy and history, and even has importance beyond urgently needed remedies for the poor writing and speaking abilities that, I am sad to say, my generation displays. Literature uniquely communicates “the old verities and truths of the heart,” as William Faulkner described in his Nobel Prize address. What are these truths of the heart? They are, Faulkner declared, “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Dr. Louise Cowan, University of Dallas professor and one of the founders of UD’s Core, concurs. Her lecture “The Poetic Imagination and Education” asserts that poetry conveys “a depth of understanding not always attainable from reading for ideas and concepts.” Once students begin to read more closely, they will learn how to express these truths of the heart in a meaningful and articulate way. Our civic life will be enriched.
Literature trains students to think critically about historical ideas and to write effectively, yes. But it does more: It challenges them to express deeper truths of the heart with elegance and insight. Literature conveys wisdom distinct from other humanities courses. So, as the Bard might say, if literature be the food of wisdom, read on!
Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the first in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Emily earned her master’s in English from Catholic University of America. She recently accepted a teaching position at Great Hearts Charter School in Texas.