Maybe it’s just interesting timing, or synchronicity, or maybe it’s because we tend to see the things we’re looking for, but I’ve come across two sources in the last few days that take up the question “why learn this?” in relation to writing and literature.The first is Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. He doesn’t say anything revolutionary in the text–in fact, most of it I’ve heard before, thought before, and taught before–but he does a great job of pulling a lot of things together and offering some simple workshops that communicate those ideas well to students. At one point, he specifically takes up the question of why we should study literature in the first place. Blau asserts that the study of literature teaches “a pattern or discipline for thinking that is applicable to every field of study and probably every complex human endeavor, and that can serve as a description of critical thinking in virtually every context” (52). He’s referring to Robert Scholes’s “textual competence,” and frames this competence with three questions:

  1. Reading: What does it say? … or What are the facts?
  2. Interpretation: What does it mean? … or What inferences can be drawn from the facts?
  3. Criticism: What is its value? … or What application does it suggest? What theory does it generate or challenge?

Learning to ask and skillfully answer these questions is vital to the successful execution of any “complex human endeavor.” Literature, and the teaching of, study of, and discussion of literature, helps to refine this ability.

While I see that as part of the answer to my question, it’s not a complete answer, and I certainly wouldn’t want this to encourage a reductive approach to literature. “I’ll learn this stuff because it will help me do x, y, and z.” Nevertheless, learning to question, reason, and argue from evidence is a vital skill that the study of literature can build.

The second source is an article in “The Writing Life” column of the Washington Post Book World by Margaret Atwood. Here, she discusses her experiences working with Inuit women in a two-week camp called Somebody’s Daughter. Here, she addresses–somewhat tangentially–the issue of audience in writing, claiming that “writing … was always for someone, even if that someone was yourself in the future.” The question we should ask of writing is not “what’s it for?” but “who’s it for?” Her answer: “It’s for the eagle. It’s for giving the eagle wings. It’s also for us, who watch it fly.” Writing (and by implication, reading) is not only of intellectual value (as Blau asserts), but is also of spiritual and/or aesthetic value. And while I agree with Atwood, that answer doesn’t quite satisfy me yet. Perhaps because I value and understand the sentiment, but don’t yet feel I could express it convincingly to someone who didn’t already get it. So, as always, the thinking goes on …

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