A creeping concern that I have had throughout my college education has been of the practical usefulness of my degree. I suppose that this is an issue that haunts any humanities major, living as we do in a society that appears to value tangible products and profit above the kinds of focuses that often dominate a class in the humanities.
And I absolutely can see the value in studying texts from the past and gleaning the lessons they offer, but sometimes I have found myself thinking, how can this be transferred to solve the problems of our modern world?
Sure, these texts may offer lessons about humanity and they may be presented in beautiful, intricate, complex language, but how does that help in a world that is riddled with a plethora of issues that can at times seem overwhelming and impossible to combat?
Where does, say, Shakespeare fit in when it feels like we are left helplessly and ironically hoping that corporations will step up to defend reduction of protected lands from the greed of others?
Well, I think part of the solution is to not become overwhelmed by what can seem to be an overwhelming imbalance of power and to remember that perspective is important.
And inspiration may be found through literature and the words of its makers—one of my recent favorites, for example, comes from Ursula Le Guin, who in her speech at the National Book Awards, reminds her audience that
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
I am an English major, and during my final semester I decided to take a political science class. This class centered around reading novels which featured utopias and dystopias, and I realized the truth of Le Guin’s words through this class.
These novels (and I think science fiction specifically is a good medium for this) offered alternative realities, and I don’t mean dragons and time travel. They offered alternate societies that operated on different fundamental philosophies.
It is easy to consider the system we live in as having inescapable amounts of power, especially when we have not experienced much of an alternative. Novels of utopias and dystopias and alternatively structured societies offers a space for us to consider alternatives, to see that change is possible.
And thought certainly drives meaningful action.
But it was through this political science class that the bridge between literature and our modern world was made clear to me. Because the theories we think about in that class, about what an ideal world would look like, or an infinitely horrible one, are ones that we were constantly encouraged to think about in tandem with the world we are living in now.
There is something that happens though, when you really think on issues that are pertinent to this world, and when you’re painfully aware of all the ways in which our current world is more dystopian than utopian.
It gets to be so that you realize that you can’t just sit back and hope that someone else will fix things. You have to make the effort in any way that becomes available to you.
It may not always be fruitful, but often it seems that fear of one’s effort not bearing fruit can ensure that one never tries in the first place, which absolutely guarantees that no change will be affected.
The systems we have in place seem rather broken, and frustrating, and entrenched. All this means is that we need to think outside the box and that we need to make active effort to fix these problems. Humans created the systems we live in, and they can modify them, too.
Of course, you need to know what you are working for in the first place, and that is where one of the many values of literature can come in.
As for me, I graduate this semester, and rather than that meaning I am finished with my education, I plan to immerse myself in all the political theory I can get my hands on, because its useless to complain about how things are if a productive solution or alternative is not offered.
In any case, I am going to go and continue to immerse myself in literature with the hopes of taking that knowledge and applying it to my immediate world, and I encourage you to do the same.