The major in English at the University of California, Merced asks students to recognize the complex interactions of culture and literature. Literature and literary criticism are significant parts of an ages old, continuing conversation about the meaning and value of human society. Unlike scientific or social scientific approaches to this conversation, literary discourse emphasizes the particular in the dialogue between particular and universal. It always arises out of specific times, places, and cultural traditions, and it often gives powerful voice to cultural differences and individual differences against the backdrop of larger, homogenizing forces. Moreover, literature has traditionally fore-grounded questions of value over questions of definition, or rather, sees questions of value as central to the definition of humanity itself.
The study of literature enables one to engage this conversation richly, both for personal development and for the ability it gives one to be a responsible agent in the many societies each person inhabits. Moreover, literary study gives one insight into how cultures operate in such a way as to facilitate ethical cross-cultural interactions. Literary study facilitates such agency by teaching readers how to understand—an understanding that engages intellectual, ethical and aesthetic faculties— and then critique literary artifacts.