During Dana Gioia’s visit to Messiah College yesterday, he delivered a lecture to students and faculty entitled “Why Literature Matters.”
This was his four point argument:
1). Literature matters because it awakens us to the fullness and possibilities of our humanity.
2). Literature matters because it enlarges our possibilities. For young readers it allows us to experience things imaginatively–like love and grief– before we ever experience them in real life.
3). Literature matters because it enhances our sense of ourselves.
4). Literature matters because it refines us. It tells us who we are and what we believe to be true. It provides us with options about how to live and thus enables us to explore those options to see what type of life works well for us.
Gioia challenged the audience to cultivate an interior space where things happen apart from the world. The cultivation of such a space has the potential to transform us. By reading fiction, he argues, we engage in a “sustained meditation” of another person’s life. Reading fiction teaches us that there are people who go through the same things that we do. Reading not only gives us a sense of individualism and personal destiny, but is also forces us to understand the plight of others. It enables us to be compassionate people.
I think Gioia is absolutely right, but I would also argue that well-written and well-taught HISTORY can do the same thing and may even be able to do it better. History has the power to transform us by forcing us to see that we are part of a larger human story. It forces us to move outside our own narcissism and see that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It allows us to see the many ways that people have faced struggles and triumphs in their lives and thus gives a sense of the possibilities available to us as we lead our own lives.
Gioia’s talk turned into a pep rally for English majors, but I would argue that history can accomplish everything that Gioia says literature can accomplish. And history is the study of things that really happened! Moreover, I wonder how many English majors in America today actually read literature?