The Forum | General Education

Michael Poliakoff on Literature as a Foundational Study

August 27, 2019

Dr. Michael Poliakoff is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Ahead of the publication of ACTA's annual What Will They Learn? report in September, Dr. Poliakoff sat down with communications associate Erik Gross to discuss why literature is such an important foundation for a well-rounded liberal arts education, and why only 34% of colleges require it. 

Why is a foundational course in literature an important part of a well-rounded liberal arts education?

There is nothing more important than the ability to read and interpret difficult texts. Although there are many interesting things one can do in the world of the arts and the humanities, reading literature is such a foundational skill for all pursuits. A minimum requirement of a course that engages students in unfamiliar material and the technique for understanding it is absolutely essential. Literature, after all, is the crystallization of human experience. Virtually every pursuit involves the ability to connect with other human beings. This experience of looking at the way other people have understood that challenges that all of us who live will face is an essential part of intellectual and emotional maturation.

I think back to Aristotle who said the most remarkable thing comparing poetry and history. According to Aristotle, poetry has more truth than history. Because history only tells us the particulars, and poetry tells us the universals. Now being a historian, I certainly take some exception to that view of how history is composed, but I understand the central truth behind what Aristotle is saying, which is that we need to look at those things that really qualify as basic human challenges and understandings. I think of what Faulkner wrote about the old verities and truths of the heart, lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed. Pity and pride, compassion and sacrifice: What could be more important for young adults as they are coming to terms with their own lives and the lives of those who came before them?

Delving into literary works provides this human perspective. And that can be from a whole range of works and cultures. It is the basic experience and habit of mind of reading literature that is so crucial as a core experience.

The reason, then, why it should be a requirement is because it is foundational in ways that many other pursuits, as important and interesting as they may be, are not. It is a wonderful thing to understand art and music and dance, but if one has to make hard choices about what is essential, the experience of confronting texts and learning how to analyze them, that has to take precedence.

“According to Aristotle, poetry has more truth than history. Because history only tells us the particulars, and poetry tells us the universals.” 

Last year’s What Will They Learn? report found that only 34% of colleges require an introductory course in literature. How do you explain this failure by our colleges?

It is a capitulation in a number of different ways. It is a capitulation to faculty who argue that they should be able to teach the things that they want to teach, not necessarily the things that students need. This has been a problem in university governance recognized since the 19th Century.

It is also a capitulation to a consumerist view of education, that the school will be more appealing to students if it offers a vast cafeteria line of options. That somehow a wide variety of choices is a better thing than a thoughtful and structured set of foundational courses.

Or the attitude that the customer is always right. 

Exactly. And we’ve seen what this spawns. It really is a terrible misuse of student time and a terrible abdication of responsibility to put the same weight on a course about Miley Cyrus or zombies and vampires or Harry Potter as a course about Shakespeare, Proust, or Kafka. As interesting and attractive as faddish topics might be to young adults, students are going to explore them on their own time. And it is much better for there to be a prioritized set of intellectual experiences.

“As interesting and attractive as faddish topics might be to young adults, students are going to explore them on their own time.” 

Our What Will They Learn? criteria looks for an introductory survey course in literature. A narrowly focused course, even if it has a rigorous and important substance, may not pass.

Introductory is perhaps an imprecise way of identifying it. It is foundational. That is to say, reading novels of the early 20th Century is a foundational experience for later studies. It does not have to be, say “British Literature of the Victorian Era to the Modern Age.” The course does not have to be that kind of broad survey. But it has to be a course with enough breadth of experience, enough breadth of texts, to allow a student the opportunity to gain a foundation in how you read literature.

Why is a grounding in certain pivotal texts, say Hamlet or The Iliad, desperately needed in today’s society?

Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever, according to Cicero. Now that’s a more historical point of view. Not to understand the great traditions that have shaped our thinking is really to be alienated from our own traditions. Not to have the experience of reading works that are widely recognized as great works denies a student the opportunity to understand what great literature is. Now, I recognize that there will be different claims on what is great, and understanding of what is great can change over time. There were works that were considered seminal or foundational 50 years ago, 100 years ago, that are barely read today. They’ve been to some degree displaced by others, which are often things that are defensible as development of literary consciousness takes place. But, there is such a thing as greatness, and students should have the opportunity to understand that and what the quest for greatness really is all about.


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