“Are you in engineering?” a friend asked me last year as I was going into university.
“No, I’m studying literature.”
“Oh! But you’re really smart…”
That’s far from the only time someone’s said a comment like that to me. I get them from friends and strangers alike. What I’d like to say in return is, “do you think you can read a thousand pages of dense literature and analyze it every week?” My first year English exam consisted of 12 definitions and six essay questions in three hours, one of them being “what is the purpose of literature? Use a play, a poem, and a novel to illustrate your answer.”
Studying the humanities is equally difficult to plugging numbers into equations. It takes a very different skill-set, and very different kind of creativity to do each. While both are equally necessary to a well-rounded, functional society, we place far too much importance on one, while overlooking the value of the other. In an activity I did in class this week, we had to choose five people to save if the world were to explode — the doctor, the farmer, and the engineer were unanimously chosen first, but having fulfilled the basics with those three positions, many people were still extremely against the idea of saving a musician, historian, writer, or anyone in the humanities. Eliminating that balance costs us an entire way of seeing the world.
I fear that not instilling the absolutely indispensability of good literature and close reading in children and students nowadays will result in an enormous loss. It shocks me already how many people do not read books at all, because it’s definitely possible to get by with Sparknotes and Wikipedia. After all, “there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.” It saddens me that schools are taking more books out of their curriculum and including more newspaper articles. Efficiency is what everyone aims for now, which isn’t a bad thing until it comes at the expense of so much.
So what is it that we lose? Certainly not the range of our knowledge — the internet takes care of that problem. What we lose is the depth of our knowledge. Over-stimulation, the need to constantly be occupied, results in far shorter attention spans. Multi-tasking, as current research already shows, means that every activity suffers from a decrease in accuracy and focus. Minds can no longer thoroughly process so much information; passive consumption, through screens, instead dominates. This leads to the loss of literature and books, because we have now entered a visual age. People do not really read anymore — most just scan texts for info. As a result, there is a decrease of analytic and independent thinking skills, specifically in the humanities fields, as well as a decrease in patience overall. Many are immediately turned off by long texts, and by extension, by deeper thought-provoking discussion and reading.
It is undeniable that a lot more people will read tabloids and Buzzfeed articles than they will classical literature or lengthy news articles. Meredith Artley, the managing editor of CNN, said last year that putting Miley’s Cyrus’s shocking VMA performance on the front page of the site gained them “6 gazillion” more views than the previously featured article on forest fires. Most people will not read long articles or books anymore, and if they do, they scan. We are very easily bored, and I regret that I too have many of these moments, even as a literature major.
The speed at which we’re expected to take in everything does not allow for us to truly take it in. A recent article published by an author and Yale English professor outlines how top universities can stifle growth and education in favour of preparing students for a career (“
I think it’s time we slowed down to re-evaluate the definitions of true knowledge, a good education, a good career, and a good, full life. In the 19 years that I’ve lived, reading has been a passionate love affair with no end. The books I’ve read — research, classics, chick lit, and fiction alike — have all been unique experiences full of lessons and emotions, lives outside my own. I feel like I’ve multiplied my years by knowing hundreds more people and places beyond the confines of physical reality. Every book broadens the way I think about the world and that is something I will always be in awe of. It breaks my heart to think that this same privilege will not be nearly as much of a given in the lives of my children.