Blog Post

Does reading literature matter anymore?

Does reading literature matter anymore?

In discussions about what students need to know to be prepared for the almighty 21st century, I often come across declarations such as this one, which recently appeared in the Guardian article "Why All Our Kids Should to be Taught How to Code" by John Naughton:

  • There will be lots of interesting discussions about the key concepts that students will need to understand, but here's one possible list for starters. Kids need to know about: algorithms (the mathematical recipes that make up programs); cryptography (how confidential information is protected on the net); machine intelligence (how services such as YouTube, NetFlix, Google and Amazon predict your preferences); computational biology (how the genetic code works); search (how we find needles in a billion haystacks); recursion (a method where the solution to a problem depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem); and heuristics (experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning, and discovery).

I agree that we should learn the concepts Naughton mentions; in my free time, I'm teaching myself how to code. But in this emphasis on learning to code, the importance of traditional humanities inquiry often seems to be left out, such as reading literature, and discussing and analyzing it. I know, reading literature sounds like a quaint idea from the nineteenth century. But, I argue, one of the best ways to learn how to think critically is to read a literary text and make connections between it and other texts as well as contexts, including cultural, historical, and scientific ones. Sometimes I think my dissertation on modern American literature has been a pointless waste of my time, particularly when I'm told that I really should know about algorithms, cryptography, and so on. On the other hand, everything leading up to and including the writing of it has brought immense richness and greater depth to how I think and how I interact with others. I am a much more analytical, imaginative, and knowledgeable person than I was before I started my MA almost ten years ago. That process began in college literature classes, though I may not have appreciated it so much at the time.

So, what am missing in this conversation about coding? Is it really as one-sided as I believe?

Am I hopelessly old fashioned in thinking that reading literature is still necessary for shaping critical minds and imaginations?


No comments