Higher Education Article


This article originally appeared in Higher Education Digest on December 7th, 2022.

Of all the pastimes available to us, reading books does not rank high on the list for many people. We live in a culture that prefers the devices in our pockets to black ink and paper. 

One reason for this development is attributable to the engrossing nature of modern technology, including AI. The other is a result of ignorance regarding the benefits of reading classic literature. We desire the comforting display of glossy images in the dark recesses of our inner selves.

There is readily available entertainment for unquiet minds, unceasing stimulation for epic appetites which devour bite-sized bits of information and purge factoids in superficial conversations as a display of intellect. Many claims that this revolution in education is a tool like any other, subject to proper use and abuse. However, while our attention spans narrow, so does our capacity to think deeply on subjects outside of our field of expertise. The hyper-specialization inherent in higher education is seen as necessary, preferable and most of all profitable. However, if one only seeks an education to increase their bank account statements, we are all the poorer for it. Yet, this is precisely how factory-style schooling is designed – to create graduates who are economically motivated wage earners rather than independent thinkers.

Therefore, classic literature is still so important. Reading is not merely a form of entertainment or escapism. The more involved in literature we become, the less white noise we absorb from the ebb and flow of changing socio-cultural mores and the less we are drawn in by distracting technology.

Reading classic literature gives us a second chance to become educated after our creativity is crushed and our passion for learning is pulverized in traditional classrooms. Books are maps of other people’s minds, and their questions are the contours. To whatever end, they inspire their readers. They offer a vision into our psyches, expose our idiosyncrasies, and highlight our shortcomings. Great books, those which have withstood the test of time, cannot be books that make one feel happy. If it were the case, one might as well write it themselves. How many self-help gurus have offered you the secret to happiness, wealth, and prosperity for an exorbitant fee? How many librarians?

Cornerstones of classic literature dig deep into the foundations of who we are as individuals, timeless, not products of a culture or location. They do not offer simple answers to evergreen questions and may leave us empty, broken, and vulnerable. It is only afterward that we can put ourselves back together and become more than we were before. 

It may be that we are so enamored with becoming someone in the future, spending our time in lecture halls, business, and staff meetings, that we neglect the persistent voice in the back of our mind clamoring for solitude. It is most often in solitude when we come face-to-face with ourselves and reflect, absorb, integrate, and discard ideas that don’t comport with our individualized moral landscape. However, self-knowledge is difficult to attain when one becomes accustomed to self-deception. One may suffer from the lack of verbiage to describe what they truly think or the wherewithal to say it with conviction.

Many people also lament over their dearth of role models and lay their responsibilities down after claiming they weren’t prepared for the vicissitudes of life. They seek solace in easily digestible answers and neglect actively participating in their own life. They let others do their reading for them.

However, a quick peek into a biography can deliver insight into the mind of a man or woman the average person would never have the opportunity to meet. They provide us with glimpses of human flourishing not so that they can be replicated, but so that we can grow beyond them. Classic works of fiction depict the subtle, ugly, and profound contents of human nature. They allow us to inhabit the minds not only of the author but of their characters who may feel more real than we do some days. Non-fiction stories detail ideas, discoveries, and historical events, and are written by some of the greatest minds our species has conjured up thus far. Our body of knowledge has gone through cycles of rot, rebirth, and now digitized reanimation. 

This makes it fashionable to deride the spirit of classic literature, claiming it belongs on the shelves and should only be read to be dissected as inferior cultural relics. The belief is that these works have nothing to offer us any longer and are thus overshadowed by the pernicious desire to historicize and criticize for the sake of critique. It is nothing but hubris to think of oneself as being above the likes of Kafka, Tolstoy, Milton, or Eliot because of the century, country, or skin into which they were born. Viewing their works through a 21st-century lens is a disservice to the authors and readers alike. A willing inability to separate an artist from their art is degrading the health of critical thinking in favor of cultivating theory to tear down beliefs concerning the differences between objective and subjective truth, beauty and wisdom. The only void remains. Even worse, the rise of the binary discourse opens the floodgates to those who assert that they have the answer rather than an answer. Then there are others who are more prosaic, those whose minds are so sharp they’ve become dull again, the book burners and censors.

Students may fancy themselves as experts because they are convinced of it by authority figures who are oftentimes too terrified to assess inimical ideas that run counter to the ethos of prevailing cultural winds. However, it is possible to despise an idea one disagrees with and not those who hold them. If this is not the case, then stories of redemption and self-improvement must be relegated to the fiction section. However, the truths found in classic literature cannot be so easily disregarded. Reading classic literature is an exploration of compassion, self-discovery, critical thinking, and action.