Education by Culture

Like many students at Harvard, I spent most of my childhood immersed in books. For most kids, books, movies, television shows, and the stories those mediums tell are more than enjoyable entertainment; they are formative and influential experiences that contribute significantly to children’s development. Although not all forms of entertainment are intellectually stimulating and some can actually inhibit development—especially television and movies—other forms that show us a new perspective, place, emotion or idea can be valuable. Education is conventionally defined by the time and effort we spend in school, working toward a degree. But as a recent New York Times article suggests, activities such as reading fiction that engage our minds in a more imaginative way are educational in their own right. Such pastimes affect how we experience and interact in real life, expanding our emotional intelligence and individual creativity in an increasingly impersonal and homogeneous society.

In a culture that is saturated with television shows, blockbuster movies, and other seemingly frivolous forms of entertainment, the forms of entertainment that can provide a nontraditional and nonacademic education are being greatly undervalued. At a place like Harvard, people often consider taking time away from our classes and homework to read for pleasure or to watch a television show wasteful. Students constantly feel the need to justify taking such a break, guilty that we are not using that time to do homework instead. Even when students do take that time, they usually turn on an episode of “Jersey Shore” instead of reading the novel that has been collecting dust on their shelves. Given the perceived luxury of pleasure reading or television watching, students are much more likely to turn to a “light” form of entertainment over something with more intellectual value. If our society emphasized “stimulating” entertainment rather than the superficial and expanded our conception of education to include nontraditional activities, perhaps students would be more inclined to pick up that book for entertainment and for their own educational development.

In some ways, those hours spent reading a book or watching a movie are even more impactful on intellectual, moral, and behavioral development than what is traditionally considered “educational.” School and classes may provide students practical knowledge and the necessary experience to work in a particular field, but their experiences outside of class will help them realize how they want to apply that knowledge. Our ability to interact with others, to find our place in society, and to understand ourselves is nurtured by experiences that are not strictly academic. In an increasingly complex society dominated by interpersonal relationships, emotional intelligence is just as important as academic and conventional intelligence. After all, it influences how we handle the social interactions and problems that we face on a daily basis.


The problem is choosing those forms of entertainment that are both enjoyable and valuable. Reading, especially, exposes us to the kinds of situations, people, and evocative experiences that we will face in real life, and thereby increases our ability to navigate such circumstances. Stories provide us with a sort of pseudo-reality that mimics the emotions and choices of real life—we relate to the characters we read about in books and see in movies and television, and we unconsciously empathize with them. We are naturally disposed to absorb the experiences we see in a fictional setting and relate it to our own lives, learning from the characters’ successes and failures, triumphs and tribulations. This sort of entertainment can influence not only individuals, but also large societal groups. For example, a recent Vanity Fair article examined the effect of the hit early 2000’s drama, “The West Wing,” and how it inspired positive action by the next generation of policy-makers, instilling in them an idealistic mission to change Washington.

We need to orient our culture and our perspectives to appreciate all kinds of intelligence and education. Despite the apparent benefits, it is easy to dismiss all entertainment as superficial. Much of what is presented in our media is superficial and of little value. But why not elevate the positive and enduring forms of entertainment above the rest and acknowledge the importance, if not necessity, of enjoying them? School is only one part of our education and students should not feel like they are slacking off or neglecting their education by sitting down with a good novel or turning on an episode of The West Wing. To reach the highest potential that we are capable of achieving it is important to take time to develop all parts of ourselves.


So do yourself a favor—take a break and pick up that novel you’ve been meaning to read. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in a story for a while. You may not be the same when you come out.

Riley K. Carney ‘15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.