When I was a graduate student, I received a letter from my father that I will never forget. A career military man, he wrote in his typically clipped prose: “Explain terminal objectives of the Ph.D. in English.”
The question is not as hostile as it sounds. My father just wanted to understand why I was willing to endure a five-year diet of Ramen noodles. But the assumptions behind his question struck me. How could I explain to him that the study of literature exists, in part, to remind us that life is more than what can be measured by “terminal objectives”?
This truth has become central to my research concerns in recent years. Technologically advanced nations dazzle their citizens with dreams of genetically engineering children, escaping into virtual reality, perfecting the body, and even attaining immortality. Anyone who has followed the biotech and nanotech revolutions knows that these goals are not the stuff of science fiction only. And technocratic futurists like Ray Kurzweil try to make the desirability of these goals a given. What could be wrong with wanting children who are born without a genetic predisposition to cancer, they ask? Why not pursue the science of perpetually renewing, wrinkle-free skin? And if life is good, shouldn’t we all want to live longer, healthier lives?
While some might say that our rapidly changing biotech culture proves that the study of literature can be only an ivory tower indulgence, I believe that problems like these prove that we cannot afford not to study literature. Literature trains the moral imagination—that faculty that is uniquely able to challenge culture’s cherished assumptions. The moral imagination sees more broadly. It sees motives. It sees into the future—and into the past. It sees the potential for unintended consequences. It cautions us.
For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birth-Mark” teaches us that behind the desire for beauty there may lurk a narcissism that is disdainful of real people. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World teaches us that a social utopian’s vision of the good life might be, in fact, quite ugly. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake teaches us how our culture is shaping young people who, in the name of “progress,” see no problem with sacrificing humanity to attain it. Literary fiction can shock us into seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly—and the real difference between them. As Flannery O’Connor puts it, “I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
Why study literature? Because in some ways it has never been more important for us to know who we are-and where we are really going.
Dr. Christina Bieber Lake, Associate Professor of English, received her Ph.D. in English from Emory University in Atlanta, and is associate professor of English, specializing in contemporary American literature. She is the author of The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor, and is currently investigating American fiction’s engagement with posthumanism. She enjoys this excuse to watch Star Trek and to write about cyborgs, clones, and artificial life. Christina and her husband, Steve ’91, recently added their son, Donovan, to the family. All three eagerly await a Chicago Bears Super Bowl victory. (The above statement was included at the time of publication — Wheaton Magazine, Winter 2007)