It was certainly not set in stone that I would study English Literature at university. I didn’t even study it for A-Level at first, only choosing to do it out of ambivalent necessity after realising that studying Physics was a colossal mistake due to my mathematical illiteracy. While I grew to love the subject, I always had doubts over whether I should attempt to take it on to further education.
These doubts were partly due to my insecurity over its usefulness as a degree, which were exacerbated by the reactions of certain individuals when I told them my plans. They would look either disdainful or confused, unable to see any point whatsoever in studying the fictions of (mostly) dead white men, especially from an economic point of view. In other words, they couldn’t see any possible career leading out of English except to be a teacher.
I could see their point. After all, there is a clear, easily-understood progression from studying Medicine to becoming a Doctor, for instance; the same goes for Engineering. The sort of careers that might directly lead out of an English degree – librarian, academic, teacher – just didn’t appeal to me at all; at the time, my main career plan was to join the military.
However, in the end I decided to stick with English and apply – I enjoyed the subject, I appeared to be relatively proficient at it, and, in any case, I supposed, the military didn’t even require a degree for officer cadets at the time. Relatively happy with my choice, I didn’t think much more about it until I actually got to university, where I encountered the same slightly disdainful attitude towards English from fellow students – most of them, it has to be said, being more science-orientated. They were focusing on hard facts and practical work, spending quality time in the labs; by contrast, we appeared to spend most of our time writing pretentious nonsense about made-up worlds, and we never seemed to bother about lectures. Even the historians (God forbid) were higher up on the academic scale than us; after all, at least they (sort of) dealt with ‘real things that happened’. We just talked about flowers and poems and psychoanalysis and stuff, didn’t we?
A not-uncommon view of higher education (from http://www.theodysseyonline.com)
I can’t say that I haven’t agreed with that line of reasoning on multiple occasions. It is true, after hours trawling through pretentious drivel on the psycho-sexual implications of a white bed sheet (I jest not), that I have wished I had studied International Relations, or even that I had never bothered with university and instead got a proper job or an apprenticeship. However, after about a year and a half of study, I think I have come to the conclusion that English Literature is not a complete waste of time.
I’ll address the hippy-romantic sandal-wearing side of my argument first, shall I? Literature collects the common experiences of humanity, and distils and promotes those experiences through the medium that is the very bedrock of society, language. It is the processed thoughts of people who lived generations ago, brought to us through their own words. It displays the inner feelings that we rarely can talk about but all share, incredibly conveyed through the arrangement of a few black marks on thin pieces of processed wood. Our thoughts, society and culture are all greatly influenced by literature, without us even knowing it – how else are complex ideas shared but in writing? Literature lets us explore alternatives and potential outcomes without us needing to enact those outcomes in reality. It broadens the mind, connecting us with experiences we might never be able to otherwise have, and it can – though not always – increase our sense of empathy for others and our own understanding of ourselves.
Tree-hugging enough for you? Good. I’ll put on my capitalist careers-advisor hat then.
The study of Literature teaches you how to absorb vast amounts of information from text in a relatively short period of time, and how to dissect and analyse that information. It challenges you to see problems from multiple angles, to be sceptical, and to be creative in formulating arguments. Writing critical essays requires you to follow extended lines of reasoning, write well, and support complex and abstract ideas with evidence, and as such these abilities are developed and refined through the study of Literature. Essentially, studying Literature teaches you how to think creatively, analytically, and critically – all useful skills for a future career.
Of course, these skills are not unique to the study of Literature – most of the Humanities are similar. I will admit that choosing between, say, History and English, often comes down to love of the subject rather than particularly divergent skill sets. As such, you might consider this whole article a defence of Arts subjects as a whole, rather than just English Literature.
I don’t just include the traditional Arts subjects either – I actually see the often-disparaged Media Studies and other such degrees in a similar vein. Just because these subjects are often taught at less well-regarded institutions does not mean that they are inherently flawed as academic pursuits. I’m sure that in a hundred years (if we get that far) Media Studies and Film Studies will be considered fairly respectable, taught alongside English, History, PPE and the rest at Oxford.
Such are my thoughts on the sometimes-disparaged Humanities. Please don’t take this to be an attack on the Sciences – I have always been, and continue to be, fascinated by science, and I try to keep as up-to-date as a mathematically-illiterate layman can be on that spectrum of human knowledge. If I had been better at numbers, maybe I would have been studying a more-scientific subject right now – who knows?
I always found the sharp divide between the sciences and the arts a bit irritating – people see it as natural and obvious today, but it was not always so. Some of the first scientific theory, that of the Ancient Greeks, was first written down in verse. In the Renaissance, the leading men of science were often also leading men of letters, and wonderful artists to boot; culturally, there was little distinction made between the different spheres of knowledge. In our current society and culture, with an economy based on specialisation, I doubt that a complete harmonisation is possible.
However, there are positive signs. More and more art and literature is based on scientific concepts and discoveries – just look at the continuing popularity of science fiction. To flip that around, it must be remembered that our desires to explore the boundaries of our scientific knowledge often come from simple curiosity and Romantic notions of progress, borne in part out of the creative works of our literary titans. In universities, courses that to an extent integrate aspects of multiple academic spheres are becoming more popular. Perhaps in the future our concepts of knowledge will turn full circle, and we will see a total fusion of art and science in a post-scarcity, post-singularity, post-human civilisation.
Or perhaps I’m just a pretentious cloud-cuckoo-lander who reads too much sci-fi.