Making the Case I Should Never Have to Make for Reading Good Literature




It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die every day
for lack
of what is found

William Carlos Williams

I grew up in a family of readers. My mother used to put her hand to her forehead, and quote Shakespeare, saying “When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought” when her four young girls were too noisy. One of my earliest literary memories is of my father reading Kipling to me, and relishing the words “The great, gray, green, greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees.” I am sure that the way that these words continue to echo in my head has something to do with the fact that I am a poet.

However, teaching literature in a community college has become a somewhat endangered profession.  For years, we have required students to take two semesters of writing  ( Composition I and Composition II). Comp I is usually basic essay writing, and the readings are traditionally non-fiction essays, although I have tended to use whole books instead in my own classes. The books I choose are usually what I would call “popular nonfiction,” books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory. These books have generally engaged my students, although they find them challenging. I often tell them that these are books that college- educated people in this country read, but the greater reason for reading them is to learn about ideas and experiences that are outside those of the average Wyoming community college student.

Our Comp II classes vary, but the common course syllabus calls for an introduction to poetry, drama and short story, as well as learning to integrate research with writing. At Sheridan College, teachers have a great deal of leeway about what works they want to teach.  This semester I have taught Othello and The Laramie Project,  poems from an international anthology, poems by prisoners, novels by Tony Hillerman,  and classic short stories. A colleague of mine has taught Richard III, and Medea. Another colleague has taught The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown, Wit, and an anthology of poetry by nurses.

We have gotten considerable pressure to open the Composition II slot to other subject areas. In theory, students could get the second level writing skills in courses that were more related to their majors. Our psychology teacher actually said, “I would rather have my students do research in psychology than a paper on The Great Gatsby.”  On the surface, this statement makes a kind of sense. However, if we step back and really consider what she was saying, it’s kind of horrifying.  The underlying assumption is that literature is not “practical,” doesn’t have any direct connection to a degree. This is a dangerous and narrow-minded assumption.

Good literature provides touchstones for us.  Good literature provides direction and inspirations. I think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa for 25 years, who continually drew sustenance for the poem “Invictus”  by William Ernest Henley (  or the way the psalms have provided comfort to people for millennia. Good literature helps us know what it means to be human. Students can know all the psychology or economics in the world, but if they don’t have a sense of empathy, an understanding of the depth and richness of common human experience, and a sense of wonder that beautiful language provides, then these students are missing one of the cornerstones of human culture.

Some people will argue that students need more practical skills first. However, one semester, during a Remedial English class, I introduced students to some poetry by Langston Hughes. One of the youngest students, an 18-year old woman about to be a mother for the first time, fell in love with Hughes’ poem “From Mother to Son.” This young woman printed out the poem, framed it and hung it in her baby’s room. The poem goes on to say, “Don’t you fall now—/ For I’se still goin’, honey,/I’se still climbin’,/And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”  This poem provided inspiration and guidance for this young woman.  The course provided her with many of the writing skills she needed to continue in college, but it also gave her a poem she will never forget.

I had a conversation with someone else recently who said something like “Well, Shakespeare might not appeal to students nowadays.”  I think as teachers, we have a responsibility to introduce students to Shakespeare. I think of the psychology teacher above, and I want to tell her that we can learn a great deal about human psychology, human behavior and to quote William Faulkner, “the human heart in conflict with itself” by reading Shakespeare.  I do not have the space to go into the beauty of Shakespeare’s language, but just meditate for a minute on Othello’s  statement, “Think of me as one who loved not wisely but too well.” To assume that Shakespeare might not appeal to some students implies that some students don’t need what Shakespeare ( and other great literature) has to offer. This assumption sells both our students and the literature short.

If we live totally in the moment, we have no history, no connection to our pasts. It’s a lonely place to be. Like Mandela, reading “Invictus” over and over, committing it to memory, we can find our place in the deeply rich human continuum if we have some understanding of and experience of the rich literatures of the world.  In an ideal world, children should be listening to and reading great literature from very early in their lives, but if that doesn’t happen for most children, we must provide some experience with great literature for all college students.  I would go so far as to contend that our civilization, our understanding of ourselves and our culture, in fact, perhaps even our lives depend on it.



5 thoughts on “Making the Case I Should Never Have to Make for Reading Good Literature

  1. You go, Jane! My dear uncle, who just past away this winter, 94 years old, could recite Gunga Din until the day he died. Maybe he could recite Gunga Din until the day he died BECAUSE he recited Gunga Din every day until the day he died, all 84 lines. Maybe I’ll memorize Henry V’s St. Crispin Day speech in Uncle Jabe’s honor, recite before every class, until my students beg for mercy. We don’t get any leeway on books for class. Too bad; I’ve read some doozies lately. I like this essay, Jane. Well done!

  2. thank, Bill. That means a lot. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”… one of the great speeches of all time… but without knowing the speech, we can’t understand the title of the movie “Band of Brothers’..

    I know a few poems by heart (I love the term “by heart;” it implies something more than just memory),and wish I knew more.

  3. ‘In his day, he said, students were grounded in spelling and had learned poetry
    and the Bible by heart. An odd phrase, “by heart,” he would add, as though
    poems were stored in the bloodstream.’ — from AS Byatt’s novel Possession

    This column is a strong, important work of observation and belief in students, Jane,

  4. Thomas Friedman just wrote an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that the days of “finding” a job are over, and that students today will have to invent their own. Because of this reality, he argues, students need fewer “facts” and more training in synthesis, creativity, imagination, and critical thinking. (Sorry, Jane.) If, indeed, we will be required to invent our own jobs, then we will need the great thinkers of the past to assist us. Who better than Shakespeare–who invented his own job after all–to provide inspiration and encouragement?

  5. Jason, I think maybe poems are stored in the blood stream…. I still remember you reading “Lady of Shallot” in front of the campfire at Writers Camp so amny years ago…

    and yes, Thomas Friedman’s column was important.. too bad we have too many students who only want the “right” answer

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