Classic literature is considered an essential part of any student’s academic life. But have we ever stopped to consider why this is so? What could be less practical than the study of stories so powerful that they sweep you away, inspire you, and make you forget about your world? This is even more so with classic literature, which takes you away not merely from your place but quite frequently from your own time as well. The philosopher Plato warned of this very thing in his dialogue, The Republic, where he argued that poets should be banished particularly because they had this kind of power. And yet, the study of classic literature remains within the standard curriculum.
A pragmatic argument can be made that literature is simply the vehicle by which language is learned. Lessons of vocabulary, grammar, and composition as well as stylistic devices such as metaphor and alliteration are all wrapped up neatly in the package of a classic novel. But this is not completely satisfying because students can learn these same lessons through language arts textbooks or biographies and history.
To answer this question, we need to go back to the very thing that made Plato afraid of this art. Stories do have the power to sweep you away by drawing you into worlds unlike your own. But far from being dangerous, they are vitally important to a child’s development. To become a functioning human being, a child needs experience. But experience typically comes at some cost. A child will never learn to fear and respect fire unless they burn their hand on the stove.
Literature allows us to live through many experiences and to do so in a fully realized way as if it had happened in life. The very best literature, the classics, make us experience these other lives with a deeper and more timeless profundity. Therefore, we can be spared the embarrassment of experiencing a social faux pas in reality if we learned how to avoid it by living it in literature. We may never be able to physically visit Jane Austen’s England, but we might be able to understand the consequences of mistaken judgement through the experience of her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.
But there is an even deeper value to literature. The very best storytellers create an entire universe, both in physical terms and also in moral and philosophical terms. They create a world with rules about how things work, how its characters can come to know it, and what kind of person one should strive to be, or not to be. These are the same questions we ask about our own lives, and the methods by which we answer those questions are practiced when we read literature.
The very process of projecting oneself into a story requires the integration of one’s own context with the context of the story. It is a process of making inferences, drawing parallels, and “connecting the dots.” The more dissimilar the world of the story is to one’s own, the more connections need to be made for the story to be understood. And this process by which one makes the world of the story intelligible may, in fact, be literature’s most important value to a young mind. Because what is adulthood if not a constant struggle to make sense of the world by connecting its dots?
Nothing offers a better proving ground for making sense of the world than great literature, and nothing could be more valuable for a developing mind.