Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Celebrate the Novel May Pitt Students Know the Rewards of Great Literature and Revive the Humanities

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Celebrate the Novel May Pitt Students Know the Rewards of Great Literature and Revive the Humanities

Article excerpt

A new school year is well underway at the University of Pittsburgh, the first without a graduate program in religious studies and with two other graduate programs, German and classics, still in suspension. These decisions, German department chair John Lyon told the Post-Gazette last winter, "sends the wrong message about the value of humanities." That wrong message goes like this: While the humanities may teach us to think critically, other disciplines do the nose-to-the-grindstone work of getting us jobs.

With these graduate programs quiet, there must be many works of literature no longer being assigned at Pitt. This is more than a shame in its own right. But even in terms of jobs, it might have costs - by preventing the birth of new ideas or discoveries or inventions. For novels are among our most reliable generators not only of conceptual breakthroughs, but also of intense emotions - joy, anger, jealousy, grief - that can crank the levers that turn the world.

"Literature allows not just learning about emotions, but experiencing them," said Keith Oatley, prize-winning novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. All of us who read novels know this phenomenon well, whether we paced the room sobbing as a horse was beaten in "Crime and Punishment" or wanted to jump out of bed and applaud when a kind man offered his trust to a ne'er-do-well in "Middlemarch."

Such powerful emotions can be squandered in twirls around the living room or by weeping in the bathtub, but it is a further gift of novels that they also can inspire us to direct these feelings productively.

Ohio State University psychology researchers Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby have found that readers who identified with a character in a story who overcame obstacles to vote on Election Day were more likely to vote in a real-life election. Researchers also found that, when readers connected to a character and found out later in the story that the character was gay, they felt better toward homosexuals afterward.

It was a potent mixture of gratitude, regret and hope that the people of Britain must have been feeling after reading "A Christmas Carol" in 1843. …

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