Recognizing literature’s miracle

By Timothy Fox  / 

Mon, Jul 01, 2013 - Page 8

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.

As Time magazine writer Annie Murphy Paul says in the title of her June 3 column: “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.”

Reading fiction also prepares us for life, Gottschall says: “Stories universally focus on the great predicaments of the human condition... Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality.”

Fiction also introduces us to other cultural world views, giving us opportunities to see how others view our world and ourselves.

This is one of the most exciting aspects of the graduate program my colleagues brought into being. Students of this program will have an opportunity for immersion, via English-language cultural productions, in the cultures, histories and societies of Asian Pacific Rim nations, from Singapore to India, from the Philippines to New Zealand.

The focus upon English-language fiction gives students another important advantage, one easily recognized by the many Taiwanese academics and teachers who consider themselves adherents of the work of Stephen Krashen. Famous for his theories of language acquisition, the University of Southern California linguist and educational activist has been a strong advocate of reading fiction for pleasure.

Extensive reading in a pleasant state of mind is a key to learning a new language. Enjoyable fiction that is neither too difficult nor too easy for language learners builds on the use of context and inference to help students acquire the English language naturally. Better yet, Krashen says, extensive reading improves all aspects of a student’s language-related skills, from writing to speaking, with improvements in both vocabulary and grammar.

It is a gross misconception that students of literature would be better off preparing themselves for careers with profession-focused studies, when in fact, a deep engagement with literature is equal to preparing them for life in all its unexpected complexities.

As any intelligent manager or employer can attest, the most important professional skills are learned on the job. This is only natural. Paul said in her Oct. 19, 2011, column that hands-on learning projects do a far better job of training students than typical lecture-centered approaches. She pointed to the example of a 2009 study in which two groups of eighth-grade learners were introduced to the same topic of water purification. One group learned through lectures, handouts and worksheets; the other built an actual water purifier. Of course, students in the second group learned the subject better, engaging the topic “in deeper and more complex thinking.”

Is this not what Feng Chun Group chairman Chang Hung-chia (張宏嘉) said last week when he noted that not every high-school graduate in Taiwan has to go to college in order to achieve a successful career? It only stands to reason that students coming out of a literary studies program, equipped with both stronger emotional intelligence and advanced English language skills, would be more capable of impressive leaps of learning in on-the-job training sessions.

It is inconceivable that employers would be unable to appreciate the student of literary studies, who has been prepared for life and career, ready to grow on the job in any profession — from marketing to diplomacy, publishing to public relations.

The time has come for the business community and everybody in our “marketplace society” to change the way they see the humanities, especially literary studies. It is time to recognize the reality that fiction may be the best way to prepare us for reality.

Timothy Fox is an associate professor in National Ilan University’s Department of Foreign Language and Literature.