In The Republic of the Imagination, Azar Nafisi (who also wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran) had this observation about the process of reading literature:
"Stories are not mere flights of fantasy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi once said, 'I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.' Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time" (p. 3).
Her statement captures very concisely how we should envision and practice teaching literature--not just stories, but all of literature--as part of a general education curriculum. Too often, in our "breadth versus depth" approach to building a curriculumn, humanities content of all sorts is simply presented as part of an introduction to the discipline. General education courses in literature may cover a broader timespan than their upper-division counterparts, but instructors tend to presents the works themselves much the same as they would in a professional studies course. What Nafisi gives us is a set of objectives for how we should present literature (and, I believe many more of the humanities disciplines) in a proper general education curriculum. The emphasis is on using literature to help students achieve insights into their own culture and to empower them to relate more effectively to the world in which they live. Ideally, this is best achieved by courses that avoid the artificial barriers that researchers have created between literature and philosophy, literature and history, literature and the social sciences, etc.
In my 1988 book, The Meaning of General Education, I reviewed several major curriculum innovations in the 20th century to demonstrate the differences between general education and liberal education, between general education and interdiscipinarity, and between general education and a prescribed curriculum--all common ways of thinking about general education from within the academy. Instead, the innovations of the last century suggested, general education "begins with the individual and his or her relationship to society, rather than knowlege, as its organizing goal" ((p. 188).
As Nafisi notes, "If we need fiction today, it is not because we need to escape from reality; it is because we need to return to it with eyes that are refreshed, or, as Tolstoy would have it, 'clean-washed'." (p.33)
Higher education today has become extremely focused on professional/vocational studies. A true general education is desperately needed to produce graduates who are able to function--as citizens, as parents, and as professionals--in a global information society that is more diverse and more fragile than we have ever seen.