According to Mark Edmundson
The truth of what we’re best fit to do is latent in all of us, Emerson suggests, and I think this to be right. But it’s also true that we, and society, too, have plenty of tricks for keeping that most important kind of knowledge out of reach. Society seems to have a vested interest in telling us what we should do and be. But often its interpretation of us — fed through teachers and guidance officers and priests and ministers and even through our loving parents — is simply wrong.
To be young is often to know, or to sense, what others have in mind for you and not to like it. But what is harder for a person who has gone unhappily through the first rites of passage into the tribe is to know how to replace the values she’s had imposed on her with something better. She’s learned a lot of socially sanctioned languages, and still none of them are hers. But are there any that truly might be? Is there something she might be or do in the world that’s truly in keeping with the insistent, but often speechless, self that presses forward internally?
This, I think, is where literature can come in — as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called “the best that has been known and thought,” a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities. Such a person sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she’s inherited from her family and culture.
It’s probable that most people will be relatively content to live within the ethical and conceptual world that their parents and their society pass on to them. Burke and Johnson thought of common-sense opinion as a great repository of wisdom stored through the ages, augmented and revised through experience, trial and error, until it became in time the treasure of humanity. Perhaps the conservative sages were right. But there will always be individuals who cannot live entirely by the standard dispensation and who require something better — or at least something else. This group may be small (though I think it larger than most imagine), but its members need what great writing can bring them very badly indeed. We professors of literature hold the key to the warehouse where the loaves lie fresh and steaming, while outside people hunger for them, sometimes dangerously.