Literature is one of the greatest teachers for the present day. Through the study of literary works, we are exposed to complex ideas and are invited to examine their success or failure, regardless of whether those ideas are explored in fictional or non-fictional texts. Sun Tzu, the traditionally credited author of The Art of War, is considered a well-known historical and military figure in Eastern countries, lending validity to the military strategies the book discusses. Torture, intimidation, and censorship not only oppress a society in 1984, but also when employed by modern nations, thus warning future societies of the effects of authoritarian power.
When colleges fail to require students to study great works of literature, they do a disservice to both their personal and professional development.
But we cannot examine ideas that have succeeded or failed if we do not understand where to find literary texts that explore them, or how to go about analyzing those texts. ACTA’s What Will They Learn? report rates the core curriculum requirements of over 1,100 American colleges and universities. The 2018-19 report offers an alarming discovery: Out of 1,120 institutions, only 376 (33.6%) require their students to take a literature course. Many of tomorrow’s leaders are not being exposed to the influential literary texts that have helped to shape our world, or trained in the critical thinking skills—so important to sound decision-making in both career and civic life—that literary analysis cultivates.
Marc Benioff, the founder and co-CEO of salesforce.com, credits The Art of War as a critical text that transformed his career. In the forward of its 2008 reprint, Benioff states, “The tenets of the book provided me the concept to enter an industry dominated by much bigger players—and gave us the strategies to render them powerless. Ultimately, it is how salesforce.com took on the entire software industry.” In the military strategies of The Art of War, Benioff uncovered fundamental principles for success that he applied to create a major software company.
Alexander the Great was not only a tremendous military commander, but also an enthusiastic student. Tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16, he was greatly inspired by literary depictions of military glory, strength, and honor. According to legend, he slept with a knife and an annotated copy of Homer’s The Iliad underneath his pillow during his military campaigns, and sought to emulate the Greek warrior Achilles. What Alexander the Great learned as a student, he brought with him as he created one of the world’s largest empires.
The examination of great ideas, and failures, presented in literary texts has the power to shape our personal outlook, career decisions, and even the ways we choose to have an impact on society. This powerful experience must be an integral part of a rigorous liberal arts education. College students are eager to uncover new ideas during their undergraduate careers as they seek to better understand their own values. The concepts explored in literary works can guide students through this formative process and open new avenues of intellectual exploration that have the potential to inspire creativity and fresh insights. When colleges fail to require students to study great works of literature, they do a disservice to both their personal and professional development.
There is no shortage of literary works to inspire students. For some students, it may be young Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island, embracing new adventures and clashing with manipulative and dishonest pirates. For other students, it may be the courage, goodness, and selfless virtue of Frodo Baggins. Students must continue to encounter rigorous and meaningful texts in college through literature requirements. Artfully-crafted characters and their accompanying struggles and triumphs offer powerful lessons about human nature that can stick with students long after they graduate. Examining the motivations, themes, and messages behind literary texts has the sometimes overlooked yet significant potential to help us understand age-old ideas in new ways and to apply the influential lessons of those who have come before us in our world today.
Nathaniel Urban is ACTA’s Program Officer for Curricular Improvement.