Why more of us should study literature

“Literature is a compass that guides us through the woods.”

Words by Dr. Shahd Alshammari

Illustration by Abdulaziz Alsefri

The humanities do not always receive as much attention as the sciences do. This is a worldwide phenomenon. In the Arab Gulf States, it seems that more and more students are shifting to the sciences and business degrees. And that’s a personal choice, as long as how you choose to spend four years of your life is truly your choice. Let me begin by saying that I want to transfer my appreciation for literature to students (and to anyone questioning their degree in literature). For me, literature (especially fiction) is great because it serves a great purpose: it opens the mind to possibilities and realities we don’t always relate to.

I have had way too many students (and their parents) dismiss literature as a degree because it’s mostly made up and unreal. But it is this unreal world that can actually provide us with a lens to examine ourselves and our environments. We need stories of others, those who are seemingly different, but more alike than we think we are. We all have pretty much the same things happen to us. We experience almost the same plot, the same storyline: you are born, you get your heart broken, you learn a few life lessons here and there, you evolve, or choose not to evolve and then you die. What is the difference between a hero and a villain? It is precisely how we react to these circumstances and things that happen to us. We make life choices all the time, but we need the right tools to decide what to do with our lives. Some of us want to learn more about the world, about what makes up our lives, our choices and how to navigate the world. Literature helps us with this endeavor. Literature is a compass that guides us through the woods.

Literature houses all sorts of characters, it gives them a home. In the same way, it gives us the opportunity to think about our assumptions of what is normal, what makes us think we are better than others and what we really value. So when I assign literary texts to my students, I urge them to think about people who might not be similar to them, about other realities. Literature helped me understand that people have different ways of understanding their bodies, selves and realities.

“Readers of literature develop empathy, we develop a world view, and realise that we are not as lonely or as isolated from the world as we think we are.”

As a professor of English Literature, I learn from my students every day. Every day, I learn more about them and what they believe, and I realise that I still don’t know much about life. Education is never about your degree. I don’t think education is about equations, numbers, methods and rules. Education adds to your character, to your personality. I don’t learn how to spell properly or how to speak proper English because my teacher wants me to, or because I want to pass the course, or I “need” an A. It’s all about growth of character. You are creating the story of your life. Everything you do today, everything you study, every time you come to class, you learn something for you. You are building yourself, not simply your grades or CV.  Life is more than just a piece of paper you hang on a wall.

Leo Tolstoy says that the function of literature is to transfer feeling from one person’s heart to another. I just want my students to think about issues that concern them and this condition of being human, of survival. Readers of literature develop empathy, we develop a world view, and realise that we are not as lonely or as isolated from the world as we think. There is a common humanity that we disregard. Literature is universal, and it is this universality that I attempt to show in my teaching. 

Everything in life is about flexibility. Everything in life is about being willing to adapt to changes, to circumstances. It doesn’t mean giving up on your beliefs or opinions, but being willing to question them. Literature, and the humanities in general, allow room for questioning and for critical thinking. Question everything you are taught. Question everything that you think you are sure of. Think about taking an exam, that stressful part of studying. An exam is never only about how much knowledge you know, or if you memorized the books. An exam tests your patience, your ability to be committed to studying and your ability to put in effort. An exam makes you stop and think before you write. Exams teach you to stop, to pause and think before you act, before you decide, before you make any judgement.

“I have had way too many students (and their parents) dismiss literature as a degree because it’s mostly made up and unreal.”

Think about your education as a journey. It is a journey into yourself. It is a journey towards yourself. Literature helps us grow into ourselves and outside of our own boundaries, outside of our comfort zones. It gives us room for self-reflect and to think about life as different narratives. Margaret Atwood says, “In the end, we’ll all become stories.” I believe this is the entire point of our education and our lives. We become stories. We are stories. Education is yet another story. Journeys are stories. And the one constant in all of these stories is yourself. That’s the character that you need to work on.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Dr. Shahd Alshammari is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. She is the author of numerous works, including “Notes on the Flesh” and “Once Upon a Life.”  Her academic works appear in journals and she is interested in disability, women’s studies and minority literature.