“What do you do with a B.A. in English/What is my life going to be?/Four years of college and plenty of knowledge/Have earned me this useless degree.” These wry lyrics from the Broadway musical, Avenue Q, penned by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx notwithstanding, I am proud to have earned a Bachelor’s degree in English. My goal was to become a professional writer, which I ultimately did, and exploring the writing of others seemed like a logical place to start. I spent four undergrad years reading, contemplating, discussing and writing about prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction of multiple countries spanning the full range of human literary history.
It is now well established pedagogical fact that mastery of reading and writing is essential not just to become proficient in dealing with literature, but also to fully comprehend and continue to learn in all disciplines, including mathematics and science. CTL’s Adolescent Literacy Model is built on and builds on the understanding that reading, writing, speaking and listening are linchpins of understanding in all subjects, and that each content area has a unique vocabulary and ways of constructing and demonstrating meaning that, when explicitly taught to all students, significantly enhance learning.
We also know that in the United States we must significantly boost achievement in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to keep up with the information explosion of modern life as well as the global economy. Learning in the STEM disciplines must accelerate for all students, especially girls, who despite past progress still lag behind their male counterparts in choosing to pursue higher level studies and careers in these fields.
And yet…let us pause for a moment and consider the important role that reading and understanding literature for literature’s sake plays in the development of the mature thinker, regardless of the career he or she chooses to pursue. What vehicle more readily than a short story, novel or essay can transport a reader to another place, another time or another way of thinking? What learning activity more clearly requires and then allows a reader to observe the same experience from multiple points of view? Several years ago I was struck by a news story about a new curriculum being used to train medical students. They were required to read and discuss literature–fiction–in an effort to foster the development of empathy with patients. A follow-up study suggested that reading and analyzing literature indeed had a positive effect on the ability of the young doctors-to-be to understand and effectively respond to patients.
In light of today’s high stakes testing and ramped up accountability in all subjects, I sometimes worry that the value of literature for its own sake is getting lost in the academic shuffle. Reading and writing about the ideas, imaginings and modes of expression used by others throughout history to the present day is not only useful because of the essential generic skills that it teaches. It is useful because it teaches about people in a deeply personal and thought-provoking way. “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” Learn, and perhaps also teach, the history of human thought and experience. A tall order, yes, but essential in any field of human endeavor.