Why literature matters for social justice

You are here

Why literature matters for social justice

Paula Moya's interdisciplinary methodology offers response to the “crisis of the humanities”

by Annelise Heinz on Monday, October 14, 2013 - 11:18am

photo of Moya

The much-discussed “crisis of the humanities” has provoked a stream of attacks and justifications, with politicians like Florida governor Rick Scott questioning investment in English, art, and history. Commentator David Brooks argued in the New York Times that scholarly attention to “race, class, and gender” has sacrificed the “uplifting mission” of humanities departments of yore that focused on “old notions of truth, beauty and goodness.”

But Stanford professor of English Paula Moya believes these critiques miss an essential point. Literature, says Moya, shapes the very frameworks we use to approach the world, including our attitudes toward race, class, and gender.

Literary scholars can help us understand this process, asserts Moya. They can also give us the tools we need to access literature written by people whose lives are very different from ours, and whose experiences and attitudes are far from our own. By bridging understanding among diverse groups, the study of literature can have powerful implications for social justice. 

As Moya sees it, literary critics not only have a right to comment on issues of race, class, and gender—they have a responsibility to do so.

Moya draws on insights from psychology, social sciences

Magnifying glasses, each showing the same image differentlyMoya’s approach to literature is the result of interdisciplinary work, especially her collaboration with social psychologist Hazel Markus.

Social and cultural psychology have shaped how Moya sees readers’ perception and filtering of literature. For Moya, a particularly important concept is that of “schema,” or a way of perceiving, feeling, and acting based on past and anticipated experience. 

According to Moya, readers bring to the scene of reading different schemas that are shaped by both what they have thought about and what they have experienced. These schemas then influence how they interact with the book or story they are reading. This is true in other areas of life as well. For example, Moya recounts how she developed her schema for cars, from a superficial sense of a “four-wheeled vehicle with an engine” to a basic ability to identify models and types, and an appreciation for differences in appearance. She developed this schema by needing to make educated purchases and by experiencing different cars over her lifetime.

Literature possesses uniquely transformative possibilities for changing our mental structures—creating new schemas that readers will continue to use.

Schemas for understanding literature work in similar ways. Imagine, for example, that you are reading a book about something with which you are entirely unfamiliar. If you have no context for the story or diverse writing styles, you may be more likely to perceive that book as badly written or, as Moya says, “as simply not good.” Such criticism is often disproportionately lobbed against works authored by women and minorities.

Moya believes literature possesses uniquely transformative possibilities for changing our mental structures—creating new schemas that readers will continue to use. This intervention is one way the humanities can impact our day-to-day lives. Moreover, literary scholars who have developed elaborated schemas for understanding literary works can have a real effect on helping readers identify and unpack the layers of meaning and culture in a piece of literature as well as people and experiences they go on to encounter.  

By offering new schema, scholars can illuminate alternative ideas

Moya's scholarship on modern Latina writer Helena Maria Viramontes offers one example of this approach to literature. In the short story "The Moths," Viramontes portrays a legend important to male dominance in Aztec culture.

classroom of students studying literature

In Moya’s analysis, Viramontes tells a story of remembering that emphasizes “matrilineal relationships as a way of moving past patriarchy.” This new schema potentially challenges readers' patriarchal worldviews. Without learning and understanding the layers and context of the story, readers risk rejecting it because of superficial impressions.

Literary scholars have the opportunity to “illuminate alternative ideas” that can counter ideologies “that are inimical to people of color, or women, or any subordinated people,” explains Moya.   

Put differently, we understand literature better when we can relate to it. If literary scholars can offer readers the tools they need to better understand works by marginalized groups—such as women of color—then these works have a better chance of being accepted into the canon.

Moya balances close reading with broader analysis

Yet, how best to draw meaning from a text? Moya’s approach to literary criticism has relevance for current methodological debates among literary scholars. As in her reading of The Moths, Moya demonstrates the value of pairing close readings of an individual text with broader analysis. 

Among literary scholars, the “crisis of the Humanities” conversation—as exemplified by David Brooks' article—has spawned rancorous debates over methods and relevance. Some scholars advocate for close readings of the text while others zoom out to focus on entire literary genres.

Moya promotes an in-between approach, while acknowledging the value of large-scale sociological criticism. “Writers do not write, nor do readers read, literary genres,” Moya remarked. Instead, the point of interaction between readers and authors takes place at the level of individual literary texts. For Moya, textual nuances as expressed in individual texts are “a sensitive indicator of the ideological underpinnings of the human experience.” 

Close reading carries two dangers, however, according to Moya. On one hand, it can create a “hodgepodge of random ‘readings.'" On the other, it risks “surface readings" that obscure underlying ideologies.

Moya's use of the schema concept allows her to access an in-between reading that is neither macro nor micro. Instead, she focuses not only on the words themselves, but also on the relationship between texts, their contexts and embedded schemas, and the reader’s individual schematic understanding.

With English departments under fire, we risk losing a vital tool for generating insight, Moya asserts. As social change begins with individuals, literature and literary critique have the power to reveal and transform the “complex world” we create every day. More understanding of alternative ideas promotes social justice by expanding readers’ minds and allowing them to understand future experiences in a more nuanced and compassionate manner. Literature shapes our schemas, and how we perceive our world can in fact create a different reality. 

pic of paula moya
Paula Moya
Associate Professor of English, School of Humanities and Sciences

Paula M. L. Moya's work focuses on issues of race and ethnicity, feminist theory, multicultural pedagogy, and Latina/o and Chicana/o literature and identity. She is the author of Learning from Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles and the co-editor of Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century  and Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism and is currently working on a book anaylyzing literature written by women of color in the last three decades of the 20th century. Moya is also a founding organizer and coordinating team member of The Future of Minority Studies research project (FMS) and has been heavily involved in gender, ethnicity, and race causes here at Stanford.

pic of annelise heinz
Annelise Heinz
Ph.D Candidate, Department of History

Annelise Heinz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History. Annelise's work focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in American and transpacific history.  She is a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.