A small miracle occurred last week, though it went unnoticed amid the excitement of graduation ceremonies, final exams and more volatile news about changing education policies and elementary-school teachers intent on corporal punishment. The miracle: A graduate program in literature was born.
I call this a miracle because the decision to start a program focused on literary studies was made in the face of strong opposition from critics within academia and throughout society, who see literature as a waste of time, something seemingly irrelevant to young Taiwanese, whose dreams are set on profitable careers in business or established school teachers, whose plans for career advancement rely upon an advanced degree in teaching English.
For the professors of National Ilan University — my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature — the choice was heart-rending and admittedly terrifying. Our critics continue to shake their heads in amazement, telling us that we have doomed our department and our careers to the dust bin of disinterest and irrelevance. They wonder how we could possibly see literature as anything other than a waste of time, precious hours given over to the passive non-act of reading.
How can students gain anything practical from reading stories, poems, or plays? At least we should have chosen to establish a program aimed at training teachers in the fine art of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). They warn us that we will be sorry when no students apply for entrance into our program.
Their criticisms sting and terrify because they reflect the basic conceptions — or should I say misconceptions — of academics representing the more “successful” graduate programs focused on training students for the marketplace. In a society that worships money, the words of these academics have great currency. The splendid irony, of course, is that by choosing “literature” over “teacher training,” my colleagues have taken a positive step toward solidarity with the critics of the boardroom. By standing up for literature, they are standing up for innovation, economic productivity, social empowerment and a place for Taiwan on the world political stage.
Jonathan Gottschall, in his book The Storytelling Animal, reminds us that reading literature is anything but a passive, time-wasting activity: “When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.”
Reading is exercise for the brain. Successful careers are built on hard work, sure, but equally important is intelligence, vision, common sense and wisdom. Success in every endeavor, from finance to technology, needs well-exercised brains.
“When we experience fiction, our minds are firing and wiring, honing the neural pathways that regulate our responses to real-life experiences,” Gottschall writes.
This suggests that readers of fiction have better social skills, which was verified by psychologist Raymond Mar at York University in Canada and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto. In two separate research projects, after ruling out all possible influencing variables, the researchers found that heavy readers of fiction score higher in tests of social and empathic ability than serious readers of nonfiction. This phenomenon extends to children too, as a study by Mar in 2010 discovered: Children who had more stories read to them were better able to develop an understanding of other people’s intentions.