Literature has the power to change the world. Here’s how.
October 14, 2019 | Ann Kowal Smith
We sit at a critical juncture in the history of work. Workplaces are increasingly virtual. Disaffection, isolation and loneliness are on the rise. Technology – our devices and social channels – often replaces face-to-face human connection. How do we preserve that which makes us uniquely human?
Let’s start with one of the oldest forms of human expression we know: the story.
Literature is a powerful storytelling technology that unites us across space and time. Literature chronicles and preserves the ever-evolving human story. It invites us to reflect on our lives and, in discussion with others, to add our voices to the exploration of timeless human themes. Literature makes us think.
But we undermine the impact of literature by keeping it within the walls of a classroom and doling its treasures to a privileged few.
To fully unleash the power of literature, we need to bring it to new people in new places in new ways.
A Community of Change Makers
Recently, I was honored to join a panel of like-minded thinkers at The Teagle Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Forum entitled “Educating for Freedom – for All.” In an afternoon dedicated to educational opportunities for underrepresented learners, the Forum featured Books@Work alongside the Clemente Course in the Humanities (brings the humanities to the working poor), Columbia University’s Freedom and Citizenship Program (introduces urban high school students to history’s writers and philosophers) and a US Navy veteran whose discovery of great literature “saved his soul.”
The common denominator?
Literature shared – in discussion – with new readers in nontraditional places. Our unified message was beautifully articulated by Columbia’s Roosevelt Montás: “This has a transformative impact on the way that [readers] see themselves and the way that they understand their capacities.”
Literature at Work
We witness this transformative impact everyday when we bring literature to work:
- A manufacturing supervisor re-examined his leadership approach after discussing William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” with his team.
- A healthcare professional understood white male privilege for the first time after discussing several short stories with a diverse group of colleagues in a large medical center.
- A nurse delighted in recognizing the power of her own insights when she saw something that others did not in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
- A management professor realized the benefit of diverse perspectives after discussing William Trevor’s short stories, leading him to question the reliability of research conducted alone.
- A group of police officers and community members openly and honestly explored the relationship of love, force and community after reading and discussing Langston Hughes’ “Thank you, Ma’am.”
But to make these insights possible, we pay particular attention to the way we engage with literature.
A Different Way
At Books@Work, we do not teach. We explore the human condition, using literature as a guide and a springboard. Through diverse life experiences, emotions and personal perspectives, we engage with the story and each other. The story becomes a platform for collaborative reflection – about our relationships, the workplace, the world.
The great astronomer Galileo allegedly said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him to find it within himself.”
Literature is the perfect map to guide this search. A detailed record of the human journey, literature offers flawed characters in challenging situations. It takes us to places we have never been, and forces us to examine the places we know well. It models humanity at its worst and at its best.
Most of all, literature shared in discussion with others taps into the wisdom of life experience, levels the playing field and reminds us that we – each and every one of us – has an important voice in the human conversation.