How to “Prove” That Poetry is Valuable

Doug Lasken bemoans a government-school program that teaches kids about exploring sexual fantasies through virtual worlds, in place of teaching them about poetry and literature.

I think the literacy coaches and cadres and their burgeoning publishing empire should be scrapped and the money saved. But not all the teachers present at the 11th grade curriculum rollout agreed. One man stood up and called the program “powerful,” and any number of other sycophants, excited over the prospect of promotion, fawned all over the presenters. How do I overcome this? How, for starters, do I prove that poetry is valuable, that we should spend money teaching it?

You know what, I can’t prove it.

How, when you think about it, can anyone prove anything?

That’s a good question: How to “prove” that poetry is valuable. Answer: It depends on what you mean by “prove.”

If you mean you want to prove it scientifically, I’m sure it can be done by well designed longitudinal studies. I don’t know whether anyone’s actually done it, but maybe someone’s tried. If you can find relevant studies, they could easily be used to support your claim, because scientific studies lend credibility to an argument, even if the studies are complete B.S.

I know what I tell my kids: that one of the most important things they can do, no matter what, is to read, read, and read some more. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read prose. Read poetry. Read the classics. Read new books. Read, because doing so will increase your knowledge, improve your socialization skills, and improve your communication skills. Of course, I can’t prove any of that scientifically, because the only proof I personally have is anecdotal evidence and intuition. Yet I know in my heart it’s all truer than true.

There’s a lesson there. Sometimes, all you need to “prove” a proposition to the masses is anecdotal evidence and intuition. I’m thinking of Robert Cialidini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. (Note that I read it. Just a coincidence?) Scientific studies can be very convincing because they have an aura of authority. The fact that they provide numbers to quote also makes them seem more convincing, because people tend to believe in numbers, even if the numbers are complete B.S. However, all you really need to “prove” the value of poetry and literature (or anything else) are some real-life stories of people whose lives were made better because of poetry or literature.

-TimK

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