The Intimacy of Reading: Reflections on Liberal Arts and Literature – An Essay by Maggie Clements


Education is often discussed one-to-one with schooling. When we say education, what we mean is the almost industrial-like complex of primary, secondary, vocational and post-secondary schools that churns through students every year and hopes what gets pushed out the various end points is prepared for what lies ahead. This narrow conception of education cuts us off from learning and from thinking. The value my parents placed on education was actually an encouragement of a love of learning. I see learning, educating oneself, as a process by which we incorporate new information into our existing understandings and wonderings. And I would argue that instead of focusing on educating our students, we should think about giving them the skills to educate themselves.

Walk a Mile Before Breakfast

I am biased of course by my own wonderful education at Mount Holyoke College, a college with a proud tradition as a liberal arts institution that has retained a broad spectrum of academic requirements for students since its inception. For Mount Holyoke, liberal arts is not a dedication to only teaching the humanities or the arts; it is a commitment to broadening and challenging our thinking by presenting material in different contexts and encouraging interdisciplinary connections. Just over half of a student’s graduating credits must come from courses outside his or her major field of study, and every student is required to take classes across the curriculum – lab sciences, math, humanities, social sciences, physical education and foreign language. Yes, gym. There’s an old story about our founder Mary Lyon’s tenure at the head of the school – all students were forced to walk a mile before breakfast! Whether or not your one mile walk was to be taken before breakfast (served at the wholly reasonably hour of 7:00am) is questionable, but the Teachers’ Book of Duties does tell us that, “the young ladies are to be required to walk one mile per day until the snow renders it desirable to specify time instead of distance, when three-quarters of an hour is the time required.” Ms. Lyon wrote after opening the school, “Exercise is worth very much more than I anticipated, especially in the winter.”

Thankfully I was able to fulfill my physical education requirement through ballet, West African dance and squash instead of tromping through the Massachusetts snows in a hoop skirt for forty-five minutes every day. Mount Holyoke’s physical education requirement might seem a bit silly now, but it is representative of Mary Lyon’s approach to education – she was holistic. She wanted to give her students a broad base of knowledge and skills that would serve them well in their lives ahead.

A Liberal Way of Thinking

Mount Holyoke has held onto the full scope of requirements even as other institutions drop them. The goal of its liberal arts education is to produce analytical thinkers who are creative, independent and confident. Intellectual breadth is at the core of a liberal arts education – learning to learn through different modes of inquiry, learning to question information, to evaluate evidence and to articulate reasoning. A liberal arts education is about thought skills. Martha Nussbaum, a Harvard educated philosopher, argues in her book Not for Profit that democratic societies need “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.”

The liberal arts ideals of broad general knowledge, backing an in-depth exploration of a specific field, are on the rise outside of higher education. The pushback on singularly focused courses of study early in one’s career or life is not just coming from liberal arts colleges that would like to continue to be relevant. There is a movement in primary and secondary education now for transforming STEM into STEAM – putting in the Arts into science and technology learning by encouraging language arts teachers to bring science and math into literature. This concept was on display in a talk by author L.M. Elliott, professor of education Denise Ousley-Exum and theater professional and teacher Megan Behm at the annual convention of the National Council for Teachers of English this November. Using Elliott’s newest book, Da Vinci’s Tiger – a historical fiction novel about Ginevra d’Benci – as a base, the three presented a variety of ways to form connections across disciplines. Writing sonnets using math sensibilities, relating physics problems to horses and jousting matches, constructing models of the Duomo using Renaissance engineering – and what da Vinci curriculum would be complete with problems on proportion and ratios?

The Story of Us

Literature as an entry into another field also happens outside of schools. Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America are the work of Jonathan Shay, a Department of Veteran’s Affairs psychologist whose work focuses on Vietnam veterans. His books use the Homeric war epics as a foil for understanding the mental journey that war veterans make during war and as they struggle towards homecoming. Shay makes a powerful point about narrative. His focus is on the personal storytelling by vets to their doctors and families, but Vietnam veterans like Tim O’Brien or war correspondents like Michael Herr give a societal level to storytelling. Shay’s methodology – drawing comparisons between Homer’s stories and those of the Vietnam War – brings to life what for me is the reason that liberal arts broadly, and why literature more specifically, is so important.

Even beyond literature’s application to math, biology or engineering, stories give us another way to understand our lives, selves and communities. What literature does is not just bring new ideas, new events and new interpretations into our lives – it brings to the fore the actual process of learning. In Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, to take two books by example, the reader follows along with the changing thinking of women who are moving through the world in the present while reflecting on and pulling up information about their pasts. Atwood’s unnamed narrator returns to her rural hometown to find her missing father, bringing along her boyfriend and another couple. Returning to her childhood home brings up her past feelings and events, the recollection of which in turn drive her to question her relationship and her place in society. Flynn’s Libby Day dredges up her past more purposefully – digging through boxes of her family’s things to sell as souvenirs of their brutal murder when she runs out of money 25 years after. Selling the items links her up with a group of amateur investigators interested in her case, and Libby’s desperation for money starts her on a path of reconnection with her estranged father and jailed (maybe guilty, maybe not) brother. Each story is a literal example of how we learn to navigate the worlds we live in – what do we do with new information, how we reconcile our pasts with our presents and our hopes for the future. In this, literature shows us one way to name and define the things and happenings around us. I think Joshua Cohen encapsulated the view expertly when he told Northeast Public Radio’s The Book Show that, “the person who knows how to read fiction knows how to order and interpret the world.”

Getting More

I grew up in a house full of books. Whether reading nurtured my innate curiosity or sparked it to begin with, books and literature gave me practice in thinking about and ordering the world around me. What literature does is not just bring new ideas, new events and new interpretations into our lives, but bring to the fore the actual process of learning. Liberal arts is an extension of that conceptually – by examining humanities, social sciences, history and physical sciences we are exposed to a great variety of ways to think and methods in which to inquire. Too often we think of education as a means to employment. Education can be that, and specialized degree programs are the key means for those just starting a career to demonstrate competency and willingness to learn, but education can also be more. The value of a liberal arts education comes from its emphasis on purposeful engagement with the world – at its best it should give us the tools to understand nearly anything we might possibly encounter.


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