In economics, the “trickle-down effect” refers to the phenomenon in which a costly good becomes accessible to more people as it loses singularity and status. In politics, it’s a popular explanation for why tax cuts to the rich ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also an interesting question to consider in relation to academics.
For the purposes of this argument, what I’m calling the “trickle-down effect” is a phenomenon used to justify the ongoing relevance of theoretical study in academics.
True, the average Joe may not benefit from Professor Doe’s extensive knowledge of dark matter and particle physics, but he will benefit from the implications of her research for nuclear weaponry and international relations. If he takes her introductory physics class, he may learn something about force that will help him build a better bookshelf. Some day, her research may lead to an enormous breakthrough, and in the meantime, it’s justifiable to those who dole out funding to the department because some, well, particle, of that knowledge trickles down to a “useful” level.
Math and science are natural bearers of this logic. But does the “trickle-down effect” apply to literary study? Or, more broadly, to the humanities? To answer that question invokes a host of other questions about not only the purpose of literary study, but the purpose of teaching literature. Here goes.
Literary Study and Theory
One of the reasons I find literary theory appealing is because it breaks down a barrier between conversations about the content of literature and conversations about, for lack of a better term, “real life.”
I would be the first to agree that discussing literary characters as if they are real is delightful. Beginning to studying fantasy as if it were utterly strange to our world frees our thinking and can produce thoughtful consideration of the similarities and differences between them.
However, as much as we like to think of books as windows onto a world we’ve never experienced, those “windows” get fogged up by the limitations of language, the other literary texts the author is using as building blocks, the author’s biases and intentions, and our own preconceptions. To my mind, an important goal of literary theory is to draw attention to the fog on the window.
Literary Study and Teaching
When it comes to teaching, at an introductory level it’s about developing a set of skills, a way of approaching the world. Scientists begin with the scientific method; literary scholars also have (often unwritten) methods.
For me, those skills include close reading — paying attention to the details of a passage, the language, the images; thinking about context; identifying patterns and links to other works; articulating ideas verbally and in written form.
As I’ve said before (see “Literature For…“), those skills do have practical relevance in a wide range of fields. In that sense, I suppose you could call them evidence of a “trickle-down effect.” After all, a student may struggle to read Fanon or Spivak and yet recognize that teaching Shakespeare in India in the nineteenth century had political implications. And perhaps the next time she looks at a newspaper, she’ll ask herself what stories did not receive coverage, how the story may have been shaped in transmission, and by whom.
Are the benefits from these skills more difficult to measure? Yes. Are they less tangible? Probably. Are they less important? I would argue that the answer is no.
Then again, this is my career choice I’m discussing. These are questions I have the luxury of considering, and my answers do not provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or better health care for the sick. Does that mean they’re not valuable? No. Does it mean they should be kept in perspective? Yes.
Given the fact that I have vested interests in this discussion, my perspective might be just a little skewed. Or is it? To quote the indomitable Paul Harvey, “That’s something to think about.”