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Mary Baine Campbell illustrates effects of literature on her worldview

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Features

March 11, 2016

English majors have a unique worldview. They see the universe through the lens of the habitual reader. The worldview of the English major is often greatly affected by the teachings of the English professor. Through lectures and assignments, English professors like Mary Baine Campbell cannot help but impress some of their individual perspectives on the minds of students, thus enriching the intellectual experience of their students.
Campbell has taught literature at both Brandeis and Harvard. Her classes taught at Brandeis include “The Tale,” “Modern Utopian Texts” and “Chaucer I.” When asked how she thought that her studies affected her worldview, she responded that it was difficult to track her studies’ effects, since they began “in a way, when I first learned to read.”
She remarked that when she grew up, young people “read above their heads. Young adult novels were not available, so we read literature meant for adults.” This behavior caused Campbell to wonder about the world that adults experienced. “There were questions I had about novels I enjoyed that caused me to realize that adults think a lot, for reasons I didn’t totally understand.” Literature made her inquisitive, and the simpler questions about literature she asked as a child evolved into the formal study of literature as an adult.
Literature naturally broadens the perspective and the empathy of the reader. This can have an enormous effect on their political and social consciousness. Campbell believes that reading led her to realize that she was “living as part of a community, in a particular moment in history,” and that this contributed to her early involvement in activism. With literature, Campbell looked beyond the horizons of her small Ohio town and took part in political advocacy at a very young age. According to Campbell, “people who like literature and music, and people who learn to write, can tend to have an earlier social and political consciousness. So, in that way, literature made me an early citizen.”
This early consciousness of politics has led Campbell to look to literature in order to solve problems. Literature is deeply embedded in history and reflects elements of the social and political cultures in which it was written. Thus, it can often be an effective tool when solving political and social problems. Campbell remarked that she is “interested in pre-capitalist societies” because “capitalism won’t last forever because of the model of growth,” continuing, “People are thinking a lot about the limits to the absorptive power of the planet.”
Campbell observed that her generation did not anticipate the way that solutions to a swelling population, such as genetically modified organisms, would be “such big moneymakers for corporations.” Studying the written word can lead thinkers and researchers to permanently solve problems related to overpopulation.
“There’s a lot we didn’t foresee” relative to the environmental and social future, explained Campbell. Campbell’s study of pre-capitalist societies could reveal solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems presented by environmental and social changes. She stated that she was drawn to research about pre-capitalist societies because she “was drawn to a world in which there was no advertising and no profits. It was a sustainable kind of world, and gradually there got to be surplus.”
Campbell takes interest in how literature and society were shaped as surplus and traditional capitalist economies began to emerge. One of the challenges of her work, she said, is that “with surplus, there comes leisure time, and with leisure time, there come literature,” so there is “a smaller corpus of literature” in pre-capitalist societies.
We do not know whether we will be able to solve all of the problems created by the quickly changing world, but the study of literature may help students get closer to solutions. Literature broadens the reader’s perspective and leads them to participate in society in new and innovative ways. Prof. Campbell is no stranger to the way that literature can enrich one’s worldview. In her studies of literature, she seeks possible solutions to the world’s emergent issues.

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