Why Bother With Literature? Students And Teachers And Writing In China

When I was teaching literature and writing courses at a private liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, members of the faculty were asked to prepare a statement justifying the existence of their major programs. Our vice-president at the time (there was an incredible turn-over in presidents and vice-presidents at that college) seemed to be serious about education* and directed the faculty to answer specific questions regarding the importance of what we were doing. Since I was the coordinator of the English program (a program situated in the Humanities Department which included literature, philosophy, religion, speech, film studies, and media communications), I provided answers which I felt underscored the importance of what we were doing.

I still feel that these are important issues for an English program, whether standing separately as an individual department in a large university or as a part of a humanities division in a small college. I have taught writing and literature in two private colleges, two community colleges, and one major university in the USA. Time has not, despite the current and fashionable interest in technology, eroded the importance of concentrating in writing, literature, and language studies. This belief, therefore, caused me to congratulate my students in at a level-two technological university in Anshan, China– and in Ningbo, China, at a level-three technological university, which is associated with a level-one university in Hangzhou–for majoring in English and for taking literature courses. The reasons I have done so can be found in the answers to the questions put to me below. I have, where necessary, generalized the answers to include a scale that is more global.

A. When students finish an English Language and Literature program, they will be able to do what?

1. These students will be able to realize that literature, like any art, is not created in a vacuum but reflects the culture and times in which it was created. This will cause them not only to realize, but to show the importance of being able to communicate thoughts and ideas in a cogent form so that the authors’ messages and feelings can be understood and appreciated for centuries.

2. These students will be able to write and to speak in a scholarly manner about important issues that not only exist today but have existed for centuries, from before the time of Homer to the present. They will be able to argue effectively because they will have learned how to back up opinion with research findings, which they have learned to, quote and document correctly. They will have learned how to communicate clearly and effectively so that their own ideas do not become lost or ignored.

3. These students will be able to conduct research in many fields because they have learned the correct methods of researching, documenting, and incorporating findings in research papers. Those who have studied creative writing will also be able to create their own literature; this is daring and important because it involves digging deeply into themselves and fashioning into art something that did not exist before.

B. Why should students study with you as a professor?

1. Students should study with me as a professor only if they have a thirst for knowledge and an interest in expanding their horizons, which is what education is supposed to be about.

2. Students should not be caught up in the appearance of learning, trapped only in the superficial rhetoric but should, instead, be aware of the hard work that is needed to take charge of, and take responsibility for, their own education. They should be aware of the fact that education is about life-long learning and life-skills, that it is more than mere job training and that it is not finite.

3. If students study writing with me, they should be willing to face the possibility that writing and publishing is a difficult, painful process, and that creative writing requires digging into the pain and suffering of our memories because that is usually the source of the energy required to be creative. It is an uncomfortable but necessary part of the creative process, and this takes not only honesty but also great courage.

C. Why should students study in an English Language and Literature Program? [or Department of Foreign Languages]

1. Students should study in an English Language and Literature Program because it is essential, particularly in areas of the world where writing skills are reportedly the weakest, that they be able to communicate clearly, correctly, and effectively on the level of intelligent university students and, eventually, the level of university graduates who are able to compete with graduates from universities worldwide. They would become aware of the world-wide importance of the language or vocabulary with which they communicate.

2. They should study literature as well as language in order to realize that literature reflects the times, mores, and philosophies of the authors — that its subject can be as varied as the multiple points of everyday life, with which it is connected, not as talk show topics between covers but as serious analysis of human endeavors and foibles.

3. They would recognize and appreciate the extent of the contributions of literary figures such as William Shakespeare who utilized or created words with a genius unknown before or since his time, whose vocabulary was the largest of any known English writer, and whose First Folio of his plays gave to all speakers of English more new words than any other single source**. With this recognition and appreciation they would, hopefully, build a bridge between the past and the future so that the monumental achievements of the past are not lost in the glitz and glitter of a technology that remains in the service of a transitory, materialistic world but are maintained as a foundation for a future rich with aesthetic and intellectual possibilities.

“Among the most important developments in contemporary global culture is the arrival of Western literary criticism and literary theory in China.” This statement is made by W. J. T. Mitchell in his preface to the Chinese edition of A HANDBOOK OF CRITICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE, printed for China by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press – a text I am now using for seniors in Research Methods in Ningbo. He adds: “There is arguably no greater force in producing understanding between peoples than the transmission of literary traditions – the great heritage of narrative, lyric, and prose forms that give cultures their distinctive character.” This is why, I believe, that more literature courses are needed in certain universities in China, not only one semester of British literature and one semester of American but two semesters of each. More important, students in all areas of studies should be exposed to world literature and mythology. When I taught literature in Anshan, I had to cram two semesters of information and small snippets from the primary literature into one semester. I complained about this, but to no avail. I tried to change textbooks but was not allowed to do so. This was when I was still naive enough to believe that students were attending the university to receive an education. Many students here in Ningbo have referred to me as a serious professor. Since I often make jokes in class, I assumed that they were not referring to a lack of sense of humor. You see, I had taken it for granted that all professors, foreign or domestic (Chinese), were serious about educating in the classroom. Boy, was I naive.

When I was an undergraduate back in a small college in Illinois (my home state or, as I like to call it, God’s Country), I heard our instructor state that a college diploma should be handed out with a birth certificate. I never forgot his remark. What I would like to recommend today, therefore, is that those universities on both sides of the Pacific who are more concerned with maximizing profits than they are with providing a real education — who intimidate professors who try to maintain intellectual standards –to take this simple step: eliminate all course work for students, charge the students and/or their beleaguered parents tuition for the equivalent of four years tuition, and hand to them the diploma. No pretenses. No false claims. Then those universities sincerely interested in educating students with real standards can hire the best professors and recruit only the serious students who really. . . really. . . really want to learn for the sake of knowledge. Then knowledge. . . not only virtue. . . becomes its own reward.

So much of literature, and so much of life, is based on the foundations of world mythology and the greatest literature that the geniuses of the mighty word have produced. This is what it means to be educated for the sake of being educated, not just trained for employment. Once we accept this, we might get back to what education and the teaching of literature is really supposed to be about.

We can then get serious.

* This “serious” vice-president later allowed students who had failed courses (one male had failed four courses in our English department and one female had failed two of mine alone) to walk across the graduation stage because, as he admitted to the faculty the next day in a meeting, he was intimidated by their parents.

**[See THE STORY OF ENGLISH: 3rd Revised Edition by

Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil

New York: Penguin Book, 2002]