“But how is this ever going to help me?”
General education classes. The college student’s bane. Why not just focus on one subject area and truly excel there? There are strong arguments on both sides of the Liberal Arts debate. This 2004 article from Jay Mathews of the Washington Post is a great place to start…
But setting aside the theoretical arguments for a moment (not dismissing them, just setting them aside for the purpose of discussion), let’s talk about whether or not literature has practical value for someone in, say, business. Science. Math. Political Science. Psychology. History.
And are there ways that literature professors can make literature expansive and enlightening for everyone and yet applicable for each individual at the same time?
Let’s start with business. First, what qualities or skills might a business major gain from a literature class? On a large scale, making business deals and negotiating requires the ability to read people, to analyze their past actions and find a way to approach them on their level. You need to learn to read their subtext.
Thanks to classic literature, literary characters are multi-dimensional and complex. In order to understand them and analyze their character, you will study their actions and venture a guess at their motivations. In other words, you will learn to read the subtext.
Conducting business also requires the ability to calculate the risks and advantages of an action and to make high-pressure decisions. To do these things, you have to see through the lens of multiple outcomes.
When you study literature, you gain perspective by looking at a work using different critical methods. Reading Alice in Wonderland in the context of the author’s life and relationships gives a vastly different reading than viewing the book as a social commentary on Victorian England. In other words, you must learn to look at a text through multiple lenses.
So how can these crossover skills be emphasized?
Some writing assignments can be tailored to match these skills. For example, if Jay Gatsby were alive and offered you a business deal, on the basis of his past dealings as recorded in The Great Gatsby, would you take it? (see this fictional article in Forbes). Analyze the foundations of the Boss’s empire in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: was his development plan for England built on sound principles?
If these topics swerve from traditional literary criticism, bear in mind that the skills or principles are the same, just framed in different vocabulary. This requires compromise and flexibility from both parties: student and professor. In order to learn the skills, the student may need to complete more traditional analysis of literature. In order to instill the drive and enthusiasm, the teacher may need to be willing to speak in terms the student can appreciate.