It took me about 10 years to realize that I was ready for higher education. To me, the school was mostly a chore. I felt pressure to start college quickly after high school and at the time, I couldn’t clearly see the value in chasing personal growth through a college education.
I strongly believe that if I would have finished a degree at that time, it would have felt worthless to me and it probably would have been something completely unrelated to what I’m studying now.
When I was younger, I loved anything that allowed me to be creative. This included painting, music, reading, and writing. I grew attached to these subjects, but for whatever reason, when I got to college age, I never saw it as a fruitful pursuit. I wanted something that directly related to a big paycheck after I finished my studies.
Now, at 28, I’m returning to school for an English creative writing degree, while maintaining a full-time job. I picked literature as a degree not only as a way to express my own creativity, but also to hopefully become a better, more empathetic person, partner, citizen, and employee.
The Decline in American Literacy
Would you believe that only 38 percent of 12th-grade students are proficient readers? Literary proficiency is defined as “having the skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.” Most 12th grade students fell into the basic or below basic category, which means they are able to perform “simple and everyday literacy activities.”
This type of literary education affects our society and communities in a big way. Sixteen percent of children who are not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade will not graduate from high school on time. Fifty percent of adults without a high school diploma read below the basic level. Fifty-two percent of those adults who maintain a literacy level lower than 5th grade cannot find employment.
On the other side of things, parents and educators who pass down their knowledge will have a profound impact on the livelihood of future generations.
Forty-two percent of children who are proficient readers grew up with parents who are frequent readers. These children are more likely to graduate high school, move on to college, and find a high paying job in the workforce. In fact, proficient readers are five times more likely than below-average readers to earn an average of almost $2000 more per week.
With that being said, many colleges report a massive decline in English graduates. The University of Maryland at College Park has reported an over 40 percent decline in English major students in just the past three years. The demand for English majors is beginning to increase in a huge way.
The school accredits this loss to students’ feelings about an “uncertain” job market that comes along with an English major. The bottom line is, English students aren’t sure that they can find a good job. So, why should they get a literature degree?
The Importance of Creativity
I gain an immense sense of accomplishment from writing as often as possible. Nothing can match the feeling of finishing a short story or article. When you know that you’ve put your best effort into creating a piece of work that you are proud of, little else compares. At least that’s how I feel about writing.
Anyone can bend words to their will and tell a completely unique story. No two works will ever be quite the same. However, at the same time, you never know who might relate to your story. You never know who you might connect with or what creativity you could spark in someone else.
If you are up to the task, you have the ability to create your own world right at your fingertips. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back. As such, readers and writers are able to escape their personal reality for a short period of time.
Literature allows us to time travel to a period when none of us were alive and experience it like the day it happened. It could be as small of a jump as yesterday or as big as hundreds of years ago. There’s no limit to what we can experience and fundamentally understand.
In addition, reading and writing unlock other forms of art. For example, movies and TV. Many movies that we know and love were adapted from classic, best-selling books. Your favorite TV show was penned by a great creative mind. In order to keep these art forms (and many other ones) alive, I believe it’s vital to nurture creative minds, relinquish our expertise, and pass down literature to other generations.
What’s more, exercising our creative minds helps us in other, more analytical, ways. The root of creativity is the act of creating. If we condition our brains to create on a regular basis, it will become much more natural for us to create something out of nothing.
As with any other art form, when you create something (whether that be writing, painting, music, etc.) you learn to both adapt to your work as it progresses and makes clear decisions about what direction your work should go. Essentially, as it pertains to the workforce, we will become better critical thinkers and will be able to make decisions on the fly.
Learning Empathy Through Literature
Let’s face it, there are situations that many of us will never be able to experience. Each of us comes from a slightly different background, culture, and home life. For example, men and women will never fully be able to experience what life living as the other sex is like. The same goes for race and many cultures. Even if you grew up in an area that was accepting and celebrated differences, you may never truly know what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes.
This is why I love books. Reading provides us with an insight that simply cannot be found anywhere else. We are able to live vicariously through characters and their experiences. We are able to read details, in most cases, that cannot be expressed through speech alone.
There is something so intimate and visceral about empathizing with someone’s feelings poured out on the page. Unlike with movies and TV, when you read someone’s words, you can interpret them as you see it in your mind. You can almost most feel what an experience was like for someone else.
I think experiencing literature and viewing it in this way ultimately allows us to grow as more empathetic individuals in society. If we can somewhat feel what another person felt through their writing, then we can use their knowledge and guidance in our own everyday lives. We will be able to approach people and situations in a completely new way that would have otherwise been lost on us.
Literature is so special to me for all of these reasons and more. There’s nothing quite like sitting down with a good book. Similarly to music, many of you may even remember a point in your life when a work of literature was able to get you through a hard time. For me, I can look back on myself and remember who I was when I read it, almost as if I was a different person.
I owe much of my personal growth to this art. I encourage you to pick up a book and read it today. Nothing else in the world can do what literature does and make us feel the way that reading and writing does. I feel it is our duty to preserve this art form and pass it on to those after us.