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.