Why I Study English: Lunan Zhao

lunan headshotHello, my name is Lunan. I am entering my third year at McGill with a double major in English Literature and Physiology. I study literature because I am seeking an education that will prepare me for a future in medicine and scientific research and, perhaps more importantly, train me to think independently.

My love for literature developed in high school. My English teacher would stroll around the room and tell stories, effortlessly weaving literary analysis, historical events, and details of old paintings. He strove with endless enthusiasm to show us that the characters’ struggles were as real and complex as our own struggles. One rainy afternoon in April, as he was preparing us for our upcoming international exams, he paused abruptly, grabbed a blunt piece of chalk, and scribbled the word “education” on the blackboard. The often quoted word, he explained, derived from Latin roots meaning “to lead out.” An education, in his view, changes the way we think and allows us to go somewhere new. The bell rang, and he never gave more specifics, leaving us an elusive ideal.

I was taught to view literature as a series of perspectives, similar to the scenes of a play. Writers use language to depict an imagined realm. Stitching together certain details, they allow readers to temporarily live a constructed experience. Experiences range from William Wordsworth’s speaker watching flowers dance in a spring breeze, to John Milton’s Satan regretting his fall from heaven. Thus, literary texts are carefully built inventions that produce a certain effect, analogous to computers or cars. A reader may perceive King Lear’s anguish for losing his kingdom without knowing the concept of the wheel of fortune, just as a person may use a computer to check emails without knowing what a hard drive does. But studying how William Shakespeare uses literary techniques to depict sorrow gives insights on how the human mind adapts, just as learning how computers are constructed reveals their mechanism.

Knowing how something functions, and not just what happens, is important because societies are not static, and we have to adapt. Computers eventually malfunction, people change characters, and job markets collapse. Literature and the humanities generally provide a platform for discussing and comprehending the changes in our world, enabling citizens to reflect and respond. Through writing, authors can identify problems causing human conflict and suggest possible approaches. By understanding the patterns of the imagined worlds in literature, perhaps we can better appreciate the complex patterns that comprise our own social and natural world.

Studying literature trains students, as writing literature allows authors, to find order within our complex worlds. As a result, students in the humanities may develop what the influential sociologist C. Wright Mills, termed a sociological imagination. Mills claimed that with this imagination, individuals can perceive the invisible forces that govern our society. They can thus see beyond misconceptions and define their own identities, rather than be dominated by societal stereotypes. By studying literary works from different periods and perspectives, we can better appreciate how different environments might shape or confine individuals (similar to how learning Newton’s laws of motion helps predict how friction and gravity affect an object’s movement). We can also develop empathy for those of other societies and backgrounds. Writers can challenge readers to question assumptions by revealing the complexity of societal labels that appear simple.

An education in the humanities also hones analytical skills, which are useful in many careers, including scientific research and medicine. When we analyze a literary scene, we look for patterns to comprehend the world that authors conjure. We connect paradoxical details and learn to select the most important threads of evidence. This ability to form connections (similar to statistical analysis) is also fundamental to scientific innovation. Many scientific breakthroughs, including the discovery of insulin to treat diabetes or the administration of vaccinations to eradicate smallpox, began with observers associating an unexpected finding with known facts to form a new theory.

Moreover, scientists conducting basic research, as well as doctors thinking through a diagnosis, must consider multiple interpretations of evidence to determine the most plausible theory. In literature courses, we are trained to consider multiple plausible readings. We learn to select evidence and gain the confidence to propose findings in essays. The inductive reasoning that we develop is useful in scientific research as well as many other careers. Studying literature, as well as pursuing literary research keeps our thoughts open to new possibilities and ideas, preventing us from falling to the trap of dogmatism.

Since a young age, I have believed that I wanted to be a skilled physician. I wanted to prove my capabilities and attain prestige. Through studying English literature and different languages, I began to form new motivations for wanting to work in healthcare and scientific research. The diverse stories and poems that I read reminded me of the common humanity that I share with these voices from various backgrounds. Despite our differences, we share many of the same fears and dreams. We all hope that tomorrow may be an even more meaningful day than today. With an English major, I learn to let go of my pride and embrace different views, preparing me to empathize with patients. I learn that as a doctor and scientific researcher I will have a responsibility to seek knowledge and further the health of my community and society. Basic healthcare may not yet be a universal right, but for everyone a healthy body is fundamental to both surviving and pursuing our ideals. As a physician I hope to work in global health organizations, such as Médecins sans frontières, to help fellow humans fight diseases so that they may live their dreams.

Perhaps the most immediate value of studying literature is that it enhances our use of a language. Successful authors often explore the nuances of a language to precisely and concisely convey meaning. Clear and effective communication, learned from both reading literature and writing literary analysis, is useful in many careers, whether as a journalist or a physician. Yet a versatile knowledge of a language also expands our scope of thought. Feelings, such as love or sorrow, are vague until described in detail through words. By educating ourselves, we attain a greater capacity to think and feel. I study literature because I enjoy deciphering the mechanisms of stories. We often gain insights and succeed in what we enjoy, because we believe we can.