Gary Saul Morson teaches the largest class at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Stereotypes about students today would suggest he must teach a salacious course on sexuality or an economics class that promises future consulting riches. Instead he teaches Russian literature in the Slavic department, and every year about 500 students read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in 10 weeks.
Morson bucks the trend of declining enrollments in literature courses. In a recent article for Commentary magazine, titled “Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature,” Morson sympathizes with students who say they have nothing to gain by reading the classics. But he says they’re not more materialistic than students were during economic booms of the 1950s or 1980s. And despite what you read about attention spans and Twitter, these same students devoured all seven books in the Harry Potter series when they were younger.
Morson is the Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts at Northwestern and my former teacher. As a journalism and European history double major at Northwestern I took his course in the winter of 2002. Those few short months changed my life, even though I had no background in Russian literature and little formation that would suggest I could appreciate these great works.