As I posted last week, I read aloud a portion of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to one of my classes on the last day of class. Most of my students enjoyed it, but I did receive one comment (although anonymously given) that those fifteen minutes I spent reading aloud were an utter waste of time that could have been spent working on the final writing project for my class or studying for another class. Of course, that student is welcome to his opinion, and I don’t expect all my students to like everything we do in class, as I would be the greatest teacher in all of history if all my students liked all we did in class all the time.
However, his comment did sadden me, but before I go into that, I feel a brief explanation of why I read some Gaiman to my class, is necessary. First, I can. So I did. Second, it’s Neil Gaiman– who (and I think this has been well-established) is a god among men. Third, the way my particular university is set up, it is possible for a student to pass through all four years and get their degree– all without ever reading a word of “literature.” And that, I think, is a real travesty. While there may not be an enormous amount of time in a first-year composition class to devote to reading “literary” things, I wanted to at least share this with them. Gaiman may not be canonical “literature,” but he is far more literary and important (in the truly humble opinion of yours truly) than any number of traditionally read authors.
So, this student’s comment made me sad for several reasons, not least of which is that it seems symptomatic of a larger disregard for the humanities at a university-level. When faced with a to-do list, I’m afraid most of us would focus on writing our assignments, studying for an exam, completing a project– and if there was a book (not a textbook, but a book book) we wanted to read, it would be shoved aside until we “had time” for it, until we’d finished everything we “had” to do.
All of which leads me to a question that I contemplate from time to time (get ready for this shift) whenever watching episodes of The Walking Dead: In a zombie apocalypse, would storytellers have a job? Not to mention, would any of the other liberal arts?
I’m only thinking here of actual job skills, not what someone’s hobbies or skills outside their job may be. If you’re a doctor or a soldier or a farmer, you have very clear marketable skills that would make you an asset to a surviving group. However, what if you teach English or French or art (any of the humanities, really)? Or, what if you are a storyteller or an artist or a musician?
I am a firm believer in the power and importance of stories, as stories are how we make sense of our world. Stories are how we relate to each other, how we relate to our world, and how we struggle to piece together meaning out of the senseless, the tragic, the bizarre, or even the mundane. But let’s make this as hypothetical as possible. Because sure, preserving culture and history is important, but let’s not skip ahead to when your survival band has reestablished some form of order and society and has made a semi-permanent camp. What about on the road, on the run?
People still read stories today, obviously, and derive immense enjoyment from them. But when push came to shove, would storytellers be given a priority, or would they vanish to be replaced by more “practical” skills and professions? And for that matter, what about any of the other arts (sculpture, painting, music, dance, drama, foreign languages, etc)? This is all (theoretically) hypothetical, and I don’t have an answer other than to say very vaguely and probably too simplistically that yes, stories should have a place and so should the other arts. While this may be an all-t00-easy answer, I wanted to raise the question, nonetheless.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman