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More novels needed in PLS

| Monday, October 12, 2015

Under my TV, much to my roommate’s chagrin, lie several of the program of liberal studies (PLS) books I have had to read over the years that I am unable to place on the shelves in my own room. As I look now, I can see Plato’s Republic, Aquinas’s On Faith, Cicero’s On Duties, Juan of Norwich and several other notable philosophical and theological works. What there is a surprising lack of in the PLS curriculum, and therefore a notable absence under my TV, are novels.

I would completely prefer a good novel to something philosophical or theological any day. I have nothing against a good old Aquinas logical argument, but if I had to make a choice, I’d find Austen a much more desirable and enjoyable read.

Now I know that the point of having a good education is not to simply read books that I like. There is an apparent joy in struggling with a text for hours, reading the same page over and over again in hopes of finding something of value for your class discussion tomorrow but I haven’t found it yet (and I suppose I will not find it until I learn to start my assignments a few days before they are due, not a few hours). If we were reading Kate Atkinson, I might find it a little bit easier to sit back with a glass of wine and peruse the pages of an engrossing detective mystery.

Obviously Kate Atkinson will never be a part of our curriculum, not even I would consider her a great author, although she is a great novelist. But why have novels gotten such a bad reputation in the academic community? It’s not necessarily from the professors, but novels definitely come under fire from several of my fellow students. I remember people questioning why Pride and Prejudice was on our Great Books Seminar IV list. Why should a novel read often by housewives and high school freshman exist on the same list with works from Malthus and Bacon? What does a story about a middle-class woman who eventually weds a rich man offer besides a happily ever after ending?

I do think people’s minds were changed after we actually discussed the novel, but it definitely wasn’t an easy change. I can completely understand, after we had read so many extensive works, why a relatively short easy read like Pride and Prejudice could be considered so dull and not have much to offer. But novels offer us something more than a deliberate and thorough argument of why we believe in God or how a man should practically run a country.

Authors who write novels choose to do so deliberately. If you want to reach a mass literate audience, write a novel. I will be the first one to say if I was not in PLS, I would not have read half of the books that were required of us, even if everyone told me that it would improve my mind and expand my horizons. It is much harder to read the extensive economic theory of Smith then it is to read Don Quixote’s adventures through La Mancha. A novel allows the reader to engage with characters, to follow their storyline. As we discussed in our classes on War and Peace, a novel allows the reader to follow a story right through to the end. While we don’t know the course of our own lives, we can at least feel secure in knowing that a novel will finish, not necessarily in the way that we want it to, but it will eventually end and complete its trajectory. That is a very comforting fact.

The novel reaches a much wider audience, as I mentioned before. While the college-educated might pick up a philosophical work, more people are going to be willing to peruse a novel. And with larger audiences comes a lot of power. Subtly, an author can put through whatever views they like. For instance, in Elena Ferrante’s four-part series The Neapolitan Novels, she manages to cover the changing ground of social and political change in Italy. I knew very little about Italian history, and still know very little, but learned much more than had I never picked up the work in the first place. More people will read a novel and probably be affected by it. The novel provides you with a world of opportunities to explain and put out your ideas on a variety of things.

Novels can provide us with a wealth of knowledge, without us even realizing, and it is important that we recognize them as a valuable form of writing. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book for fun (mostly because I’ve been struggling to read a thousand pages of Tolstoy that was due at the beginning of the year). But it is good to be aware that there are other ways to be valuably educated, without simply just doing the homework that was assigned the night before.

Kitty Baker is a senior program of liberal studies and film, television and theatre major and proud Cavanaughty. She can be reached at cbaker7@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Hi Kitty —

    First off, let me say THANKS!!!!!!!! for promoting novels. Without sounding presumptuous, I think we all have learned much more about life, people & ourselves from fiction.

    And, alas, that’s why novels aren’t taught more: novels are about “fiction”. Which. ostensibly, is about fake people in fake places doing fake things. And, in this day and age of college costing a quarter of a million dollars for an undergraduate degree, how can it be justified to teach things – and that’s what literary texts are called now by administrators, “things” – that aren’t “true and real”?

    “What impact do these fake things have on people making a living?”

    Those comments, sorry Kitty, are a little harsh. But that’s what happens in REAL curriculum meetings on college campuses these days.

    So let’s soften the issue some, make it more…explainable. Not “believable”. Explanable.

    On a practical level, unless one uses an established “canonical” work, teaching a novel eats up 2 weeks on a syllabus. Which, on the small scale, may not seem like much time. Yet, in reality, 2 weeks in actual class time equates to UMass to Navy – in essence, a huge chuck of class time. Which faculty are required to account for. Then, there will be the assignment based on the novel – another week (at least!). So, to teach a single novel, you’re going to eat up a third of the semester.

    As opposed to reading excerpts from philosophical/religious/economic/sociological texts. Emphasis on “excerpts”.

    Novels – and by extension, short stories – are the entranceway most people pass through when developing a “love of literature”. Yet, these works are the most difficult to teach – eating up semester class time, ability to bring in other texts & discuss in a fully realized fashion both texts, student “satisfaction” – which also Kitty, is the HUGEST reason why junior faculty get promoted, “We spent too much time on XXXXXXXX novel, it was boring, why did we have to talk about it so long?” – all of these {and other} factors conspire against the novel.

    And, on top of it all, are the times in which we live – how many text DURING class? after class? how long are attention spans now?

    The novel will always exist. Mostly in canonical forms. Which will include more recent works. Yes. But there are just too many factors that have nothing to do with the worth of teaching it that conspire against teaching it.

    But thanks Sweetie, for such a wonderful plea and defense! Don’t give up the fight!!

    >3 becca

  • Herb Melton

    As a PLS grad from another era (’71), who admittedly squandered much of that wonderful opportunity, I would like to argue for the maintenance of a traditional canon for the PLS curriculum. It should, no doubt, include the most notable works of fiction. They play an irreplaceable role in the education of successive generations in what it means to be truly wise and understanding.

    Great poetry and fiction communicate truth in a way, as Ms. Baker notes, that is more approachable. They also teach us how to write and speak more carefully, clearly and powerfully, if we permit them to do so. Writers, such as Tolstoy and Austen, provide insights from another time and place, which allow us to see ourselves, and our time througha different set of eyes, and keep us, hopefully, from the undue effects of the folly of our own day.

    While, as I mentioned above, I failed to take full advantage of the blessing of PLS, I am thankful each day for the privilege it was. The lack of significant exposure to the humanities, characteristic of higher education in our day, leaves all who fall victim to it far less human, and far less able to live well as free men and women.