Why I Study Literature.

Growing up, I’ve always loved reading and writing, which pushed me to pursue English Literature in junior college and university.

Sadly, in a society that values numbers, Literature, and any other humanities subject for that matter, is inevitably belittled as no more than a mandatory fulfilment for lower to upper secondary education. Up to the day I graduated, many concluded that my degree was ill-suited to the reality of the working world, and the only job that would befit me was – you guessed it, an English teacher (which I’m not, by the way).

Not to put down my peers who did embark on the teaching route (whom I totally look up to because I personally couldn’t stomach the thought of going back to the classroom); I just find it ironic that English Literature majors are held in a dichotomous position in which they are revered for being able to understand a seemingly indecipherable text (trust me, it doesn’t happen all the time), but at the same time ridiculed for “over-reading” a “storybook”.

It’s cliche to say this, but if I had a dollar for every time someone stopped by to tell me to get my nose out of “that storybook” and hit the “real” books, I would be a millionaire.

But this post is not to lament about the woes of a student of English Literature, or to lambast every single person who inadvertently made me feel less than a student (including that one guy who told me to, quote unquote, stop looking at pornography because my copy of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie had Modigliani’s Reclining Nude as its cover art).

I just thought I would post something that Professor Robbie Goh shared in my final class at NUS (which I also thought might come in handy for anyone who’s in that why-did-I-choose-this-major time of the semester 😉 ). I’m not setting out to change anyone’s mind about my major, but maybe this might put those in doubt a little closer to why I stuck with it for so long:

“What is the value of Literature?” 

If studied well, it has a profound impact on our lives. 

It’s unfortunate that our society disparages subjects like that, and we all understand that because we’ve all had lousy Literature teaches, and it kills critical reading to have all our texts colour coded and highlighted. 

Literature is an aspect of life. Through literature we actually see life, not in the physical being of the characters but in the fact that these fictional characters are facets of real, social economies, and tell us something about history and culture which we are living in. Looking at the issues in these texts actually gives us a lot of tools for us to look at our society and ourselves critically. 

At the kind of age we are, it’s easy to think our lives will go on forever.It’s very easy to think that we’ve got all the time in the world, that whatever mistakes we make, we can make right. 

We live in a society and a world where not all is right; it just looks that way. You think of Singapore as a rich country, yet there are people who live in abject poverty. People get rich on “their own merit” but isn’t there a moral burden? Take into consideration the notion of complicity. And that is the perspective that literature gives us, a refusal to be complicit and complacent and to not let discourses mislead and ensnare us. 

The point is that life is not pleasant, even though we are the recipients of prosperity in Singapore.Beyond that we’ll be the teachers to others on how to read critically. The benefit of all that will be hopefully a fulfilled life, in that you make decisions in the right way instead of what society tells you. If you keep following the crowd, you’ll fall off the cliff. There is something wrong with this picture, but because everyone does it, that is the way it is. 

Getting haunted by ambition, we keep wanting to achieve. The modern society puts gaps and barriers in between individuals. Capitalism intercedes and interposes gaps and frustrates the happiness and fulfilment of those relationships.

Find something in your life that doesn’t come from society or what society tells you to do; a fundamental dissatisfaction with life is on the rise, you are a victim of your success, so find something for yourself that isn’t dependent on the market society.

Find something that will fulfil you and really make you happy, something that will last and which you will enjoy. Pursue that and put that at a central position in your life. 

That is one of the values of humanities, to teach us and inspire us into a search for truth. Nothing else that society promises you will endure. If your university education has not contributed to your ability to lead a fulfilled life, you’ve been remised. 

And yes, this post is titled in the present tense, even though I’ve already graduated. Because like the authorities that be, I don’t think learning stops when you leave the classroom and head out to the corporate world. 😉


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