The Value of Literary Study

Last Revised (5/87)

Literary study involves reading poems, stories, plays, novels, and essays, thinking about them, discussing them, and writing about them. Due to an increase in the desire for practical skills, the American university has in recent years decided to emphasize business and technical education at the expense of the humanities. This decision stems from the assumption that the study of literature has little or no utilitarian value. We believe, however, that with the right instruction, the study of literature is a practical discipline. Furthermore, it cultivates other important abilities that make it an indispensable part of university education.

Because literary study involves the four processes of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, its practical pedagogical value lies in its tendency to stimulate these activities and thereby improve the student’s ability to perform them. Careful reading increases one’s vocabulary and general verbal sensitivity and sophistication. In the classroom, the teacher can lead the student to think critically about what has been read. Classroom discussions sharpen reading and thinking skills and increase the student’s ability to express thoughts orally. The teacher can then use these processes to stimulate in students the desire to organize and record thoughts in writing. Thus the study of literature can be seen as practical intellectual discipline. It directly involves the student in the analysis of difficult literary texts, and in doing so it develops verbal skills which are transferable to other contexts. In other words, a person trained in the study of literature will be better equipped than most to read, comprehend, and analyze other kinds of texts (newspapers, reports, briefs, etc.). This is why, for example, English majors make such highly qualified candidates for law school.

But literary study pays dividends far beyond the practical ones resulting from increased verbal ability. It is the provider of many other important intellectual gifts. Reading literature increases knowledge in an active, intellectually challenging way that other more passive activities, such as watching television cannot do. A thorough grounding in literature automatically provides knowledge of our literary heritage while at the same time increasing the student’s awareness of cultural values, history, sociology, psychology, and almost every branch of human knowledge.

None of these advantages, however, is the real reason most people choose to study literature. The most important gains achieved by reading literature are those of the imagination. Literary study expands our capacity to sympathize with other human beings, enhances our ability to see and imagine human complexity, and broadens our intellectual horizons by enlarging our power to experience life vicariously. It does these things so well, in fact, that medical schools around the country are modifying their curriculums to include the study of literature. It develops our skills for discerning aesthetic principles and deepens our ability to take pleasure in the written word. We live in an age that grossly and dangerously underestimates the power and importance of the imagination. To ignore it is to stifle the breath of the mind. Even the most practical kind of student can benefit from knowing something beyond his or her own professional field, and literary study provides the kind of imaginative human broadening that can prove very valuable in the long run. Some great thinkers of the last two hundred years (Mill, Freud, Schweitzer, Einstein) have argued passionately for the importance of literary study in preserving the human imagination. The American university must listen to these arguments. For while the practical arguments for studying literature are compelling, it is its power to broaden sympathies and stimulate imagination that makes its inclusion and emphasis in any university curriculum essential.

Literature Course Guidelines

Literature courses should reinforce and refine skills developed in 101 and 102, as well as work in the areas specific to such courses (see Literature Course Objectives). To do so, the following guidelines should be followed:


Students should be expected to spend at least two out-of-class hours in reading and preparation for each fifty minute class period.


Students should be assigned at least 1200 words of writing per semester, including at least one formal paper with a minimum of 500 words. The remainder of the requirement may be met in a variety of ways from additional formal papers, to short in-class essays, to journals.


Students should be tested in a fashion appropriate to the nature of the course. Such testing might take the following forms:

  • essay examinations
  • objective examinations
  • oral examinations
  • journals requiring critical response to specific readings
  • other papers in addition to those suggested in the statement regarding writing in literature courses.

At Stout, the English Department offers three kinds of courses. Following are these three kinds and the areas of emphasis that should be dealt with in each.

Period courses:

characteristic themes, significant writers, historical background, techniques, major symbols, critical approaches, critical theory.

Genre courses:

the specific genre’s conventions, significant practitioners, range and historical development, critical approach, critical theory.

Topics courses:

varieties of points of view of a topic the cultural and temporal range of a topic, significant themes and writers concerned with that topic.