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Four Years at the Mount

Senior Year

For the love of literatureÖ

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

(1/2018) Iíve talked before about why I became an English major and I believe (if memory serves me) that it was a lengthy description of my epiphany centered around my life-long love of reading. This was a couple years ago, and, while a few years older, I do not particularly consider myself to be any wiser; however, with the benefit of a continued education, my perspective has changed and my understanding of what it means to be an "English Major" has deepened.

This semester, the Mount offered an English-based senior seminar. The goal of this course was to dare students to recognize the place of importance literature holds for both the individual and the community. The course drew on a wide variety of texts and criticisms, all of which invited me to look at the works in reference to the rich tapestry of literary history. I hope you are not surprised when I tell you that my final for this course focused on the question: Why is literature and the study of literature valuable? For the longest time the answer to this seemed to be both obvious and entirely indescribable.

The question also holds a certain irritant for me because out of the scope of disciplines that exist in the world, the arts are the ones that need to defend themselves. People seldom question the value of studying mathematics or science, and why should they? Within those spheres, the world can be dissected, discovered and quantified. Literature, however, has value because it contains the world, perhaps not how it is, but how humanity experiences it. It is the ability to communicate and share the world that exists in our minds. The most realistic, factual, maybe even scientific piece of literature is colored by the experiences of the person that writes it, and is written in the light of every word that was written before it. It connects all of humanity to the literary tradition which, in turn, connects all humans to each other.

For those of you who need a little more cause to value literature, please permit me to reuse an example that was applied to my exam. The fact is, literature is valuable because there is an extreme danger to believing that it isnít. To explain further, I propose we visit a thriving city. This civilization has a long history with centuries of science and art to show off, yet, for the sake of this argument, let us say it is about to undergo a coup. After the violence and destruction that follows, the dust settles on the new leaders, and the new government begins to craft the city into an image and likeness that better suits them. In such situations, literature suffers a blow.

Technology and scientific discoveries of the old regime can stay, of course, but any pamphlets, books or newspapers that contain possible incendiary speech is gathered and burned. Every word thereafter is written, produced and censured. This is not because literature isnít valuable; how could literature be seen as anything other than something of enormous power and potential when, if used properly, it could sway hearts and minds according to its agenda. Besides, sooner or later in this upturned city there will no doubt be flyers and pamphlets and books to replace those destroyed. The value of literature is realized as both a defense and weapon to be utilized by anyone, for good or ill.

Now on to the study of literature, which is equally significant and (as this seems important nowadays) marketable. Since deciding on my major, the question that almost always follows is "what in the world are you going to do with that?" I think this is because people assume English majors are individuals who get a book club degree. However, if you are under this assumption, allow me to say that while, yes, English majors enjoy reading and yes, we are usually adept at discussing what we have read, the skills of the English major surpass this.

People who study literature develop critical and analytical thought processes and possess knowledge about how to communicate effectively. English majors know language well enough to use the written word to convey understanding. With the study of literary criticism, one trains in the ability to recognize patterns, to trace a thread through a multitude of texts to see how they build on and borrow from each other. Above all, the literary critic is required to engage with humanity on a larger scale. In participating in literary study and criticism, you take part of a network of literary critics and works that connect you to a global conversation.

As I have grown into my English major, I have come to recognize it for not only containing within it what I love to do, but also teaching me how everything I know, experience or read has a value. It permits me to be a part of something that creates a world around me, while at the same time changes what I know of the world and my perception of it. Literature is sense and magic and everything rolled into one. As an English major, I am aware of the power that words have to wriggle their way into a personís mind and stay there, so that we can never again see what was once mundane in the same way. To the English major, literature is a growing, immortal tapestry that connects humanity and its inner worlds throughout millennia. In the study of literature, we develop for ourselves a deeper understanding and connection with the world around us.

For me, this year has been full of wonderful things and all of them have changed me for the better. As I enter the last semester of my senior year, I see how much I have been altered by my education here at the Mount. I see the wide world made smaller and more attainable, I recognize challenges as opportunities, and know that for the rest of my life I will be relying on what I have learned here.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir