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Role of Literature in a Liberal Arts Education

“But WHY do we have to read this?”

“When will I EVER use this again?!”

“This book is so BORING!”

I have been teaching English Language Arts for 12 years, and I have heard them all: the excuses, tantrums, sob stories, and (not always constructive) criticisms. As a teacher, I understand the angst and uncertainty underlying many, if not most, of these outbursts, and I too have questioned the wisdom of teaching the classics in the classroom. However, if I am certain of anything, it is this: no matter how frustrating the experience of reading a classic is, the pain cannot compare with the incalculable riches that same reading experience will yield if given half the chance.

Beowulf: The Graphic Novel

Beowulf: The Graphic Novel

Cultural Literacy

There is nothing like the feeling of victory: knowing you have stayed the course and triumphed over what you considered the biggest obstacle in your life. Well, to a high school student, that obstacle can be one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. How? It is no surprise that some of our greatest writers are not the easiest to read through. In some cases (*cough* James Joyce *cough*), it is almost impossible. However, those who have braved the long, drawn out barrens of authorial loquaciousness have also reached the heights of cultural sensitivity and timeless wisdom.

In other words, people who read classic pieces of literature immerse themselves in worlds of ideas that allow them to question and think critically, allowing them to develop an effective cultural literacy – the ability to read and understand their current social realities. Let’s face it: the movers and shakers behind our cultural development are voracious readers, and the only way to fully understand the totality of our cultural milieu is to immerse ourselves in the literary traditions that surround us (both classic AND contemporary).


Let’s face it: anyone who has read The Scarlet Letter cannot help but be affected by the golden-embroidered crimson letter “A” that reposes upon Hester’s chest or feel empathy for the dejected Rev. Dimmesdale as he is forced to preach against the very sins that haunt his own heart. Or how about Beowulf, the legendary Geat warrior who battles the demon Grendel bare-handed and bare…well, everything else. Whose imagination would not be impassioned by the dark savage journey Marlowe takes into the depths of the Congo (or is it his own subconscious?), or the other-worldly elves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, or the broom-riding athletes of Hogwarts?

Anyone who has worked – nay, struggled! – through Beowulf always finds the journey worthwhile and well-repaid. Yes, it is hard, but – oh! – what fun! It was Beowulf that inspired Tolkien to create the orcs and trolls and hobbits and elves of Middle-Earth, and Tolkien who inspired the fantastical worlds of elves and orcs that inhabit so many of our contemporary games and novels (think Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings Online, or World of Warcraft). What could such texts inspire in you? Don’t believe me? Try it!

There are many other advantages to reading, and I could go on ad nauseum about them. However, suffice it to say that reading is just…fun. Yes, that’s it. It is fun and rewarding in its own right. Do I really need a reason to read? No. Does anyone really need a reason to read? Ideally, no. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are many people, young and old, who abhor reading, and while I cannot empathize with their derision of the printed word, I can understand their need for tangible goals. Hell, I would need MORE than tangible goals to even TOUCH the idea of math! So, I hope that the above two ideas will at least spark an itch in them to try picking up a (challenging) book for fun. Will it be easy? No, but the journey will be out of this world!

Categories: Education Literature

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Andres Munoz, Jr.