An Apology for English Studies

Shakespeare booksI love books. I mean I really love books. I admit to being perfectly happy losing myself in a bookstore or library. And I am happy as a kitten whenever I get the chance to curl up with a book on Saturday afternoons. I love the feel of a book in my hands but I can also comfortably carry them with me on my tablet or listen to one in the car. All these stories and adventures give me the chance to explore life through the eyes of fellow human beings, share in their knowledge and feel their emotions all from my comfy chair. I guess you could say I am passionate about literature.

So much so that I decided to get a degree in English. At times however (and I have seen this in comments on the VLE and conversations with fellow students) it can be difficult, even for the most passionate among us, to explain exactly why we chose to study what we study. Others might even question the wisdom of doing an English degree in a technological world.

To those voices I say, yes, of course engineers can build the machine, but English graduates can write: the manual (so people actually understand it), the prospectus (for investors), the sales pitch, the contracts, the patent applications, the company website, the press releases, the speeches, the news, even the HR documentation needed to hire the engineer. And where would science be without science fiction? Language and literature, its highest expression, do matter.

So please bear with me as I put my Philip Sidney cap on today.

Star Trek meme: Why the heck are you doing an English degree?The lack of appreciation is perhaps due to the misconception that English students simply read books. We do, study them that is, but there is so much more to it than that, isn’t there? So next time someone asks why you are studying English in that doubtful tone, or if you are debating whether or not to do the degree, consider the following.

We, English literature students study …. (here it comes, drumroll please)…. ideas. Go ahead, take a minute and let that sink in.

Ideas, concepts, philosophies. Their inception, their development, their influence on human interaction, society and history. All of this packed into words on a page and given wings by human imagination. We study the books, not for the books’ sake but for what they hold within. Just as we study the words, not for their beauty alone, but for what they represent: the human experience. Whether in poetic, prose, novel or dramatic form, we don’t discriminate. In studying the vehicle (language and literature) by which this experience is shared we also get to study the experience itself. The myriad of human concepts from philosophy to modern technology and the peoples and historical contexts that gave birth to them. This is why we have the best of so many worlds. We are as much informed in our learning by the worlds of philosophy, sociology, religion, history, geography, business and politics as we are by linguistics. Literature –aka ‘the text’- is where it all comes together. We get a bird’s eye view of the entire human experience.

As a student of ideas, human nature and ‘the text’, the English graduate is uniquely capable not only of grasping, assessing and contextualising but also of communicating these ideas. Why on earth is this important you might ask? Every human endeavour begins with a thought, an idea, a concept which, if effectively communicated, can start a revolution and change the course of history.

If all that in itself were not enough, as we delight in the buffet of knowledge and insight that English study offers, we also develop intellectual and transferable skills. The very skills, like open mindedness, critical thinking and judgement, sorely needed in a world increasingly dominated by rhetoric. The ability to absorb data, to see ‘the bigger picture’, to evaluate the short and long term effects of words and actions are more crucial than ever in our global society.

Now some might argue that these are basic skills any graduate has to offer but there is a significant difference. While others simply use this instrument, we study it. We make ourselves acquainted with all its strength and weaknesses, its achievements and limitations. We learn to explore its boundaries and expand its uses. As we master the instrument we master the art. We are wordsmiths. Our words have power, because of the ideas they represent but even more so because of their ability to travel from one consciousness to the next and seeding that consciousness in a way that allows for new ideas and concepts to grow in perpetuity. Now this is our expertise. We design the best means of transportation for every idea.

So yes we come to the degree because of our love of words and stories, but we leave as highly educated human beings with a keen awareness of the world around us, not limited by a single isolated area of competency. We are bridge builders. We develop the critical thinking skills needed to become the creators of ideas, the communication skills to transmit those ideas and best of all an increased power of persuasion to convince others of the same. That is a very powerful combination. What human endeavour does not need that kind of power? Success stories abound. (Apple anyone?) The question then is not ‘why English?’ but ‘why not English’.

And of course there are the great books! What more could you want?

Silvy is studying the BA English in the United Kingdom.

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