The struggle for the serious study and appreciation of literature continues in our society, where enormous emphasis has been placed on the “practical” disciplines of math and science, and specialized academics more and more produce arcane, overtly politicized work that the public seems to find joyless and irrelevant.

Scott Herring, author and lecturer in the writing program at UC Davis, tells a story about his grandfather and a 77-year-old Ford Model B engine head he came upon while hiking in the Montana wilderness, and suggests that literature’s practical value lies in its ability to deliver the scents, sounds and sensations of the past, and that renewed emphasis on this aspect of study will revive a withered, disappearing and essential discipline. –ARK

Scott Herring at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Today’s literary scholarship too often serves as a vehicle for politics, and even professors who care little for public opinion are eager to indoctrinate students in their views. We seem to have given up on the notion that literature itself can be useful. But in doing so, we are forgetting a crucial function of the books we study.

History gives us the facts, sort of, but from literary works we can learn what the past smelled like, sounded like, and felt like, the forgotten gritty details of a lost era. Literature brings us as close as we can come to reinhabiting the past. By reclaiming this use of literature in the classroom, perhaps we can move away from the political agitation that has been our bread and butter—or porridge and hardtack—for the last 30 years.

… Let the dead French theorists lie. Instead, literary scholars can become guides to the physical reality of the past. If you think about it, that’s what we’ve been doing in class for the last hundred years: explaining how to pronounce “Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?” in Early Modern English, for instance, or describing a Boeing B-17 to help students understand Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Once ordinary people note that we’re doing something useful again, they might stop looking at us like we’re nuts. And maybe we’ll even get some jobs back.

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