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What's the Point of English Literature?

At some point in teaching teenagers, usually just before or soon after you have entered the dreaded ’S’ subject (Shakespeare), someone in the class will wearily throw out this question: ‘What’s the point?’ This particular individual will have had enough of poetry; they will have struggled with prose excerpts and grudgingly done the minimum amount of work with regard to any exercises that you have given out.

There are roughly four types of students of literature:

1. The student who engages with and enjoys any type of text without requiring any kind of support.

2. The student who engages with and enjoys texts of some kinds fairly easily, but might need help and support with others.

3. The student who needs some help with texts and doesn’t automatically enjoy them.

4. The student who is resistive to literature.

The one who asks this question usually belongs to the fourth type. He or she clarifies the question in various ways: ‘Why do we study Shakespeare? What’s the purpose of studying poetry and stories?

Why are we bothering with this?

When I first started teaching, I found this question -which invariably occurred every year, at least once per class -- frustrating. Wasn’t the answer obvious? Were all my efforts wasted? ‘Clearly,’ I thought, the first time this came up, ‘I am not doing a good enough job.’

Then I got smarter. I started throwing this stuff back. ‘You’re quite right,’ I said. ‘English Literature as a subject is totally useless to you. I mean it. It isn’t of any use to you at all.’

This response tends to get the attention of even the most resistive student. They can’t quite take on board what you’ve just said -- you were supposed to react by being apathetic and weary, not by agreeing with them. Then I used to list all the subjects on the board which were absolutely and clearly useful to people as they grew up: mathematics, for adding things up and working out all kinds of things; the sciences, for helping us to understand and manage the physical universe; geography for teaching us where we would go on holiday or what was happening around us; history for explaining how things had come to be the way they were. Even English language, which taught useful communication skills, had a place on this list. Knowing these things, one could get jobs, go places, do practical things, accrue money, build houses and so on.

But there was another list of subjects which were of no ‘use’ at all: art, music, dance, drama, studying about films, and naturally English literature. There were no real career paths here, unless one had a talent in one or more of them or one wanted to be a teacher of that subject, which was a kind of pointless, inward-turning spiral: learning about literature with the sole goal of teaching literature was an empty goal, it seemed.

And yet, I would go on to explain, now that I had all their attention, and yet…

Every single human society on the planet valued these subjects almost above all else; every single culture placed an emphasis on art, drama, music and literature, almost every single nation on earth had galleries, theatres, concert halls and libraries. Human beings worked all day long in their practical jobs so that they could do…what? Go home and read, or go out and listen to music, or be part of the audience of a play or movie, or adorn their homes and public spaces with works of art. Yes, the Arts as a whole could be called ‘useless’ -- but were they valueless?

The point of learning about literature isn’t to ‘know’ certain practical facts, so that one can pass an examination at some point -- though it can seem like that at times. The point is to learn to appreciate truth, beauty, wisdom and glory; the point is to learn about meaning, what it is and what it can do for one’s life; the point is to understand each other and the way we actually think, feel and are.

They got the point. The question was never raised again in any class who had had that briefing.

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