Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

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The Case for Literature


Bill-Frayer-2010I was listening, recently, to some kind of an expert who was advising students and parents on how to prepare for college. He was making the very reasonable point that students ought to consider majoring in mathematics, science, or engineering. His point was that if you are planning on attending college and borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, you had better be sure you can afford to make the loan payments. Point taken.

This advice was opposite that I received from my father in the 1960’s. He suggested that the purpose of a college education was to “live a good life” not to simply find good employment. Studying art, philosophy, music, and literature, he argued, enriched one’s life in many, often immeasurable ways. My dad was a wise man, and I majored in English. I don’t regret it.  

I would argue that, more than ever, the world needs leaders who regularly read literature. By literature, I am not referring to Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, Ann Rivers Siddons or John Grisham. I am, of course suggesting we need to spend more time reading the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Keats, and Frost.

We need to read the classics of literature which have endured for generations as well-written and meaningful works which contain universal wisdom. In other words, it is more important that we be challenged than amused.

Why? What do we gain by investing the time and energy to read great literature? Reading literature requires us to read about different kinds of people, from different cultures, living at different times that are living through challenging situations. This helps us overcome our ego-centric view of the world today and our problems. By reading about the challenges fellow human beings have faced, we can develop empathy and compassion for other people. This is essential to understanding the complexities of living in modern times.

Reading literature is challenging. It’s often difficult and complex, and requires us to pay attention and consider the author’s broader meaning. It is not passive amusement like watching TV or reading a thriller. It requires an active mind and helps us keep our cognitive skills honed.

When we read literature, we confront characters and ideas with which we may not agree. We may, for example, not like particular characters but understand, in a complex way, why they act as they do. Struggling with complexity helps us avoid oversimplification and, hopefully, makes us more compassionate.    

By reading the great works of literature, we more acutely understand the trends, and tragedies, of history. Great leaders in the past have read classic literature and often wrote poetry themselves. By reading widely, we connect ourselves to the past and, perhaps, avoid getting too impressed with ourselves and our limited point of view. Looking at the past through literature generates great humility. Don’t you think we could use a little more of that these days?





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