The Role of Classic Literature in Modern Education

“Fictional characters behave according to the same psychological probabilities as real people. But the characters of fiction are found in exotic dilemmas that real people hardly encounter. Consequently, fiction provides us with the opportunity to ponder how people react in uncommon situations, and to deduce moral lessons, psychological principles, and philosophical insights from their behavior.”
J.R. McCuen and A.C. WInkler

I first ran across this quote in an introductory logic textbook as an example of an argument. It is precisely the argument I want to advance here for the importance of studying literature. Like all art, literature in the form of novels, plays, and even poetry gives us a chance to rehearse scenarios and address ultimate life questions. We can work through moral dilemmas, grief, death, love, and other human emotions and dramas and find lessons to apply to everyday life.

Narrative: We often learn better by reading and telling stories than simply trying to learn facts out of context. This is why it is best to learn history as a narrative. Unfortunately, history textbooks do not read well as stories. With literature we have a ready made vehicle to learn about the past in an entertaining and engaging way. 

Ethics: One of the best ways to discuss ethics is to use real world examples and case studies. But, like history textbooks these can often be dry and not very engaging. They also force us to examine complex issues without appealing to the real world complexity and context of a given situation. Interestingly enough, good literature can provide this complexity and context even though the characters and situations described are not real. With this context, we can use literature to examine problems in ethics and possible solutions to moral dilemmas. 

Problem Solving: In a more general sense, literature provides us with a vehicle for exercising problem solving skills. Even though fictional characters do end up in “exotic dilemmas,” they are often not entirely dissimilar from our own dilemmas and though I am not arguing that we ought to do as fictional characters do, we can often learn something by the insights that can be gained in the study of literature. Even if we learn what not to do this can be a valuable lesson. 

Role Models: Literature provides us with a wide array of characters to study and many of these can be used as good role models. Like real people, fictional characters (at least those in good literature) are often flawed but this allows us to explore the full complexity of humanity as we decide which role models to emulate and which to avoid. Even the best real life heroes have traits we ought to avoid. 

Students often ask why they are required to study past works of fiction that seem irrelevant to their life today. But, the best works of literature are still read and studied precisely because they contain characters and lessons that are timeless. Reading only recent and obviously relevant works denies us the opportunity to learn from a wide range of sources and limits our scope to only what we can see immediately before us. But, the world is a much larger place, both geographically and historically. Literature provides an entertaining way to learn this lesson and can be a window onto many other important subjects in the curriculum. It can also show us how these subjects connect and influence life. With all of these benefits it is well worth studying the great works of literature.