Because politics is complicated, and if you want to live in a democracy you have to try to figure it out.

But America is famously anti-intellectual, however, so we’ve somehow wound up in the situation we’re in right now, aptly summed up by Eugene Robinson:

The nation demands the impossible: quick, painless solutions to long-term, structural problems. While they’re running for office, politicians of both parties encourage this kind of magical thinking. When they get into office, they’re forced to try to explain that things aren’t quite so simple — that restructuring our economy, renewing the nation’s increasingly rickety infrastructure, reforming an unsustainable system of entitlements, redefining America’s position in the world and all the other massive challenges that face the country are going to require years of effort. But the American people don’t want to hear any of this. They want somebody to make it all better. Now.

In plain English, this state of affairs is called “wishful thinking.” It doesn’t work that well for my four-year-old kid, and it isn’t going to work that well for you, either.

The world is a complicated place. No one is going to figure it out for you, but they will figure it out for themselves and use that knowledge to take advantage of you. And the danger comes, as I’ve always seen and heard it described, when too many people surrender their powers of intellect to a few demagogues and power brokers. That’s when really bad things like revolutions and tyrannies and dictatorships happen. See history for examples.

Now, I find myself once again suggesting that studying literature is the way to help us avoid these kinds of bad outcomes. And surely, if there are any political scientists or financiers or historians reading this blog, they’re already sharpening their argumentative knives to prove that it’s really their discipline, not literature, that’s really practical when it comes to dealing with these problems. And once again, I’ll simply note that literature is classically defined as “literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general” (OED).

As you’ll learn in your literature classes, it’s the context–the historical context, the political context, the intellectual context, the debates that one book responds to and then creates afterward as other people read it–that really counts. Reading one book is almost as bad as reading no books. The point is to start reading, to become a skilled and informed reader, and to keep reading–until you know everything that’s relevant.

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