Is the study of literature a social good?

My entry for an essay competition, from earlier this year 

The term ‘social good’ refers to any action that brings some sort of benefit to the general public. In this essay I will explore the social implications of studying literary works – for which I will use the definition ‘nondramatic textual works’ – in academic environments, but also as a leisure activity. In the world of academia, the study of fictional texts is sometimes perceived as a waste of time, or, at the very least, as a private endeavour that is unlikely to have any appreciable societal repercussions. In reality, however, there is a plethora of empirical evidence to suggest that the study of literature can effect a great deal of social good (as well as incomprehensible amounts of social evil) but can the very act of analysing a text’s linguistic subtleties, form and structure be considered a ‘social good’ in and of itself?

Prima facie, the idea of ‘social good’ seems to encapsulate mainly public institutions and systems such as healthcare, education, and sanitation. However, in the modern globalised world, the meaning of the term has adapted to include the phenomenon of ‘global citizens’ uniting, cooperating, and creating positive societal impacts. Throughout history, it has frequently been proven to us that the best way to foster communication, and subsequently, cooperation, is through words, because as the popular saying goes, words can indeed change the world, as well as the micro-worlds (or, societies) it contains. This is true not only due to the fact that words are the currency through which we express our opinions and ideas, but also because human beings are particularly responsive to stories, especially ones that appeal to our ethos, pathos and logos receptors. This is why, in 1984, the fictional totalitarian government is eager to limit its citizens’ vocabularies by creating a new language – ‘Newspeak’, and why the Nazis were so keen to burn books; even fascist movements are able to appreciate the extraordinary power of literature. But surely this means that, although the eventual outcomes of studying literature might be representative cases of ‘social good’ (or ‘social evil’) the act of studying literary works is not in itself a social good?

In the modern world, as previously implied, one of the most worthwhile ‘social goods’ worth striving for is unity, something that the study of literary works can successfully incubate. To achieve global unity for the benefit of all of mankind, we must first come to understand one another. Literature points us towards this direction by promoting empathy, and by humanising people from distant lands and of unfamiliar cultures. By studying the works of others, it is often maintained by literary enthusiasts that we hone the ability to understand others’ struggles and the reasons behind their cultural practices and modes of thinking. Social psychologist David Kidd asserts that literary fictions usually highlight “human subjectivity”, as well as the existence of multiple perspectives. In this way, the study of literary fictions is not an exclusively egotistical pursuit, but one central to the successful navigation of “complex social relationships in a multifaceted, multicultural world like our own” (Moya).
Nevertheless, the capacity of literature to inspire empathy can be called into question when there is historical evidence of ‘cultured’ Nazis who loved to read highbrow literature, as well as well-read contemporary politicians who do not object to the execution of drone strikes on innocent people. In addition to this, instead of stimulating feelings of tolerance and celebration, the study of books can help to establish a societal ‘Other’, such as black people in the case of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Jewish people throughout literary works published by Nazi academics. Readers of these texts (whether on an academic basis or otherwise) may have looked to them as excuses to justify and fortify their existing sentiments of intolerance.

This is where different ethical approaches become relevant. On the one hand, from a deontological point of view, whereby the ‘goodness’ or ‘evil’ of an action is based on the actual deed itself, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those deeds, the study of literary works might be seen as nothing more than a discipline undertaken for mere self- gratification. On the other hand, from a viewpoint centred on teleology (a branch that argues that the ‘goodness’ of an action depends more on its outcomes) studying certain types of literature can, in turn, benefit many individuals, and hence the initial study of a literary work can, by extension, be deemed a social good in itself.

Some academics proclaim that the study of literary works is critical to most types of social work, and to strengthening our sense of what it may mean to be human; it is with good reason that Literature is popularly labelled a ‘Humanities’ subject. The study of literary works refines our “imagination, sensitivity and self-awareness”; it “touches feeling” and “enlivens intuition” in a way that quantitative analyses and social experiments cannot (Turner). The procurement of these traits is particularly important when it comes to the development of children and teenagers. Studying literature allows individuals to develop their critical thinking skills, and their propensity to look for solutions to problems (including social ones) which, as a result, facilitate the envisioning and gradual construction of a better world, for the good of as many people as possible.

Karl Marx believed that ideas “become a practical force when they seize the masses”. And what better way to ‘seize the masses’ than through literature? Nowadays, literature is almost a mass-produced commodity, and it is being made growingly affordable and accessible, especially given steadily increasing global literacy rates (World Economic Forum, 2016). Through literary works, writers can – now more easily than ever – share their ideas, and writings can sometimes have a heuristic function. The study of such writings can lead to engagement, and the implementation of ‘socially good’ actions, especially when it forces readers to confront the truths of societal problems and injustices. Fictional works can encourage ‘social imagination’, which Greene defines as “the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficit society” (Greene, 2014). Utopian novels can, unsurprisingly, have this effect, but so can dystopian ones, as they can warn us of the potential consequences of not promoting social good.

The study of some written works can also catalyse large-scale catastrophes. The young Hitler’s beliefs apropos to ‘racial purity’ and eugenics were formulated as a result of certain literary works: the racist notion of ‘Social Darwinism’, it is often argued by Darwinists, was based on a regrettable misreading of Darwin (Bragg, 2006). The reception of different texts clearly depends on the reader, so the study of literary works is a mostly subjective experience. The study of religious and political literary works has led to both extraordinary acts of kindness, as well as unfathomable acts of spitefulness and even terrorism.

When it comes to studying literature, purpose is everything. In situations whereby reluctant students are forced to study literary works, they will usually conform not for the purpose of attempting to shape their moral, cultural or political identities, but for the purpose of passing a test (Tovani). This inevitably leads to apathy and disengagement. Despite this, it could be argued that the widespread study of literary works, even by said reluctant students, is necessary for the successful maintenance of our democratic society, as democracy is not just about the mechanical process of voting; it is also about “shaping human beings with intellectual curiosity, a caring heart, and a belief in the common good” (Wolk, 2009).

Furthermore, in the context of the formal education system, the answer to the question of whether or not the study of literary works is beneficial is heavily reliant on the methods through which they are taught. ‘Inquiry-based learning’ (as opposed to rote exam-centric or ‘mass culture’ learning) accommodates critical thinking, and can encourage greater social responsibility, therefore resulting in both the teaching and study of literary works functioning as social goods, and demonstrating a ripple effect, by assisting towards the intellectual development of caring, civically engaged, critical, and creative individuals.

If we look at literature as an art, we come to understand that there is often a lack of correspondence between aesthetics and ethics. There exist “real-life repetitions of Browning’s Duke – [from his dramatic monologue ‘My Last Duchess’] persons whose good taste in literature […] does not keep them from being moral monsters” (Sisk). Perhaps Oscar Wilde was correct (at least, with regard to the realisation of societal favour) when he declared, “all art is quite useless”; this is directly related to the on-going cultural debate on whether or not ‘beautiful’ things are innately ‘good’ things. The study of Romantic poems, mellifluous and passionate though they were, probably did not amount to any considerable influence on society, and could be interpreted as trivial “celebrations of unrestrained self-indulgent search for self- gratification” (Henry). Wilde therefore believed that art [including the study of literary works] is “what we would spend our time doing in the ideal society”; it is thus valued most by the “elite”, who try to protect it from the “bourgeois demands that it be useful” (Sisk).

The acquisition of a ‘taste’ for literature is something that can either form an integral component of, or be entirely absent from, the primary socialisation process. Some children are brought up to enjoy the melodies of verse and the tempo of prose; others are simply not trained to view literary works in this way. Thus, Sisk argues that studies of literary works can often be mere “satisfactions of the ivory tower”. In this way, learning about literature from an early age may have the adverse effect of widening the rift between the social classes, and perhaps, by asking such questions as the one that forms the foundation of this essay, the aforementioned ‘elite’ that has managed to cultivate a love for studying literary works simply “want to insist that the effort makes them more morally enlightened as well” (Currie, 2013).

The study of literary works can be a pursuit fuelled by egoism rather than social responsibility. The practice has a sort of ‘pseudo-value’, in that knowledge of literary publications (and in particular, that which is more esoteric) can act as an “ornament to polite conversation”. This function is not dissimilar to other “direct, immediate, and personal rewards of [studying] literature” such as “pure entertainment” (Clapp). Despite the psychological research conducted into the alleged intrinsic benefits of studying literature, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that an individual is more likely to be a better global citizen if he or she reads War and Peace.

Derrida once said that literature is a “strange institution”. Literary critics who attempt to tame the discipline instinctively run the risk of trying to fit novels into or reject them from their own models of the world (e.g. Marxist critics associating texts with class struggles, post-colonialists with colonialism, etc.) instead of attending to the text as it is (Eaglestone, 2013). Not every fictional text possesses the authorial intention of enlightening the reader, nor of motivating him or her to help others or improve society somehow, although some critics are keen to stress an alleged distinction between popular fiction, which does not need to have a wider purpose, and literature, which should form part of a bigger social picture (Eaglestone, 2013).

The study of ‘realist’ texts in particular can be a social good: this literary movement was arguably rather societally reflective. Mimetic texts can act as a sort of window onto the world, teaching or enlightening readers about ‘reality’; texts unanimously classified as ‘realist’ tend to have some sort of underlying moral message, and this supports the postmodernist view that our reality is constructed through media such as books. They can show how complex and multifaceted people can be; this essential education in human nature is vital to the preservation and perpetuation of community ties. As well as this, for some Marxist critics (e.g. György Lukács) realist novels can present readers with a vision of a greater harmony, in particular in the face of capitalist fragmentation. A possible criticism of this is that the study of realist literary texts is futile; for such texts to appear reflective of reality, their textual nature must be ignored (Montgomery, 1992).

On a larger scale, the latent power of literature lies in the fact that it helps us to understand the world, other people, and ourselves. The study of literary works can equip people with social and emotional intelligence, so that we come to know more about our own motivations, desires and limitations, and those of the people around us. This intellectual grappling with the intense complexity of the human condition can in turn, lead to increased civic participation and better social cohesion, allowing people to cultivate a sense of purpose and belonging, and surely anything that achieves such a thing can be seen as a social good.

Ultimately, literary works are multivalent vessels via which a whole range of ethical, aesthetic, sociocultural, and political ideologies can be propounded; a close reading of a work of literature is “not merely an encounter with the self” (Moya). The study of literature cannot be justified as an end in itself, but rather as a potential means and a catalyst to social ends- whether good or bad – which can be as varied and surprising as the field itself. The practice of studying literature can be analogised to the study of science. The study of science is not in itself a social good, however, depending on the motives of the individual, can lead to developments in research, that ultimately benefit numerous individuals. Written works are the mirrors of human nature, so to study literary works is to study human nature. We are imperfect creatures, and sometimes we (and the ideas we convey through our literary works) can have a very positive impact on the world, but other times they do not.

Making chaotic annotations and possessing the ability to identify iambic pentameter is not equivalent to making a positive societal impact. From a purely deontological perspective, the study of literary works is not in itself a social good, but from a teleological perspective, it can lead to ‘good’ outcomes, and can therefore be an act of social good, depending on context. It can therefore be said that knowledge itself is not enough – the study of literary works can be a road to goodness (or conservatism, or anarchism) but is not necessarily a socially ‘good’ action in itself. But one thing cannot be denied: the immense power of literature should never be underestimated, and the education system carries the great responsibility of encouraging a more meaningful approach towards studying literature – one that nurtures a collective sense of social responsibility. The power of literature lies dormant until it is activated, but when it is activated, we pleasingly find that words can indeed change worlds.

Works Cited

Wolk, S. (2009). Reading for a Better World: Teaching for Social Responsibility With Young Adult Literature. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy .
World Economic Forum. (2016). The Global Information Technology Report . Retrieved from Word Economic Forum : report-2016
Bragg, M. (2006). 12 Books That Changed The World. Edinburgh: Hodder and Stoughton.
Currie, G. (2013, June 1). Does Great Literature Make Us Better? Retrieved from New York Times: Opinionator: make-us-better/
Clapp, E. R. (n.d.). Literature and the Good Society. Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors .
Eaglestone, R. (2013). Contemporary Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greene, M. (2014). More about Social Imagination. Retrieved from The Maxine Greene Institute: imagination/what-is-social-imagination
Henry, M. D. (n.d.). The Enlightenment and Romanticism from a Theological Perspective. Maynooth University .
Moya, P. M. (n.d.). Why Study Literature? Retrieved from Stanford University Press Blog: study-literature.html
Montgomery, M. (1992). Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature. New York: Routledge.
Sisk, J. P. (n.d.). What Is Literature Good For? The Georgia Review .
Turner, M. (n.d.). Literature and Social Work: An exploration of how literature informs social work in a way social sciences cannot. Oxford Journals .
Tovani, C. I Read It, But I Don’t Get it: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Aurora, Colorado.

Sadia Ahmed, 2018 

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