Why Literature?

A while ago, I mentioned that when I began graduate school I would be posting many of my papers on here for your reading pleasure. This is the first of those. If you wish to use it or any of my papers in your own work, please remember to cite properly. Thanks! ~ MM

In his academic paper titled “Poetry in a Scientific World”, Morris Sweetkind lays out logical answers to a question I, myself, have often pondered: what is the benefit of studying literature, particularly poetry, in a world run by science? As he points out, scientific discovery is easily measured by the physical, whereas the benefits of literature and the arts are much more abstract. This has caused many in modern society to poopoo the importance of literature altogether as an archaic branch of academia.

That said, as Sweetkind points out, “… Matthew Arnold, the apostle of culture… enumerated the four essential powers which go to the building up of human life as: (1) the power of conduct; (2) the power of intellect and knowledge; (3) the power of beauty; (4) the power of social life and the manners.” (Sweetkind 360) Thus in studying science (intellect and knowledge) only, Sweetkind argues, society “turns out one fourth of a human being” (360). Another argument the author makes for the study of literature is that, in learning the scientific development of new and awesome powers, humanity must even more so know how best to use those powers in a moralistic fashion. How will humanity make the right decisions on its use of scientific marvels such as the atom bomb, he asks, if it loses its ability to feel compassion, hope, and remorse? Literature reminds us all of the importance of retaining our humanity, staying true to the good and the right. Yet another argument Sweetkind gives is that literature, unlike science, is never outdated. “The modern student enamored of science clings to the fallacy that what he learns in his textbooks is eternal truth… However, my copies of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and Leaves of Grass, today still have validity for my grandchildren.” (360) While science is continually evolving and changing, making every discovery of yesterday obsolete today, the basic building blocks of humanity which literature so beautifully mirrors never change. People will always be at once evil and good, cruel and kind, greedy and compassionate. These facts are as relevant today, the author argues, as they ever were and ever will be. Another simple yet profound statement Sweetkind makes is that “To be a whole man [the student] must know himself…” (360) And in order to know oneself, one must know the humanity from which he came, right?

So, are these arguments still valid today, over thirty years after Sweetkind wrote his essay in 1970?  I do believe they are. In my opinion, the argument that literature is essential to the growth and cultivation of a moralistic society is as true today as it ever was, and possibly even more so. With the advent of the internet, social media, and smart-phone communication to name a few, we as a society have become less and less sensitive to the feelings and needs of our fellow man. After all, we’re no longer talking to a person but to a computer or cell-phone screen, which has no emotion whatsoever. In this modern day when personal interaction is so scarce, especially with strangers who might have a different point of view, we must even more so be reminded of our own emotional ties to those around us, and with them, our responsibility to the feelings of others. This is especially true in children’s literature, which carries the vital mission of teaching these moral lessons to young minds so that humanity retains its compassion in future generations. Sweetkind’s argument that literature doesn’t change is also still very true. All one must do to see this fact in action is read the myriad of literary quotes posted on Facebook daily, sometimes from hundreds of years ago, which people post today and the lively conversations they elicit.

Overall, I believe Sweetkind’s arguments are valid and logical. In order to be a whole person, one must know oneself wholly, and in order to do that, one must study the ancestors who came before, both factual and fictional. This has been true since the written word was first laid down, and will be true until the final human being falls to the dust.



Works Cited


Sweetkind, Morris. “Poetry in a Scientific World” Department of English, Cheshire Academy, Cheshire Connetticut (1970): 359-366. Print / Web http://campusweb.myunion.edu/ICS/Portlets/ICS/Handoutportlet/viewhandler.ashx?handout_id=ddd37f28-f39f-4519-b41b-16f4955091a1


2 Responses to “Why Literature?”

  1. Good luck with graduate school; I’m trying to keep myself motivated using the same method. I enjoyed your post, though you seem to contradict yourself a bit toward the end. Isn’t there any way we can conceive of mobile technology as being a means of furthering the moralistic projects of humanity? You yourself cite the abundance of literary quotations appearing on Facebook; if anything this seems to attest to the potential for social networking to ensure the survival of a literary culture. I’m not even necessarily in agreement with my last statement there; just throwing it out as food for thought. Cheers!

    • Thank-you for the well-wishes. I certainly need them!

      The idea that my final statement was a contradiction did come to my mind as I wrote it. However, I feel the issue isn’t in weather we can use technology to further morality, but rather if we will. It seems to me that there are those who wish to do exactly as you say; I, myself, am among them. Unfortunately, I have seen a very strong case against it actually happening simply because we are so very outnumbered by those who don’t care at all. I could be wrong. In fact, I hope I am. I suppose we shall see!

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