The Value of English Studies

I was once walking alongside someone who was teaching me literature at Cambridge called Anthony Lane, when he began wondering what the point of studying English literature was. He told me that an important part of studying English literature is wondering why literature is worth studying in the first place. And I agreed. Lane—who studied English at university and is now a film critic—wasn’t worried that English was less important than other subjects. He meant that self-reflection matters when studying English. Humanities subjects (including history, modern languages, classics, philosophy, theology, music, art) are all about observing the different ways people have lived and thought about the world. And figuring out where you belong in the world is an essential part of that. English studies allow you to think about different people’s experience of the world, and how they’ve written about it. This applies for primary school students working out how to understand this alphabet that all the grown-ups around them use, as it does for doctoral students scouring the archives.

This blog is intended to ask some of the hard questions about studying humanities subjects in the UK. I’m writing with general readers in mind: people I know like Hannah and Monica about to take their GCSEs in English language and literature; Alice battling through AS English; my immediate family, who are all involved in medicine and may well wonder what their son/brother is doing all day; Zen, who gobbles up fiction in her spare time; and people I chat to who want to know why the UK government should be funding arts and humanities teaching and resarch in general, and handing out money to students like me.

Some of the big questions I’ll think about in this space are: What do arts subjects teach you that science doesn’t? Why should people study literature when it doesn’t give you vocational skills, as subjects like medicine, law, economics and engineering do? Why should people study literature, rather than just read books? What’s the connection between a professional Shakespearean scholar’s research, and studying Romeo and Juliet for GCSE? What are the big ideas and trends in academic English studies today, and why do they matter? These questions touch on larger issues about education policy and culture, but will also give me the chance to recommend books and authors.

English studies are all about learning what other people say, feel and think. This blog is one person’s idea about why literature is an important part of a balanced education in a twenty-first century democratic society. Anthony Lane was right that students need to ask themselves why literature is worth studying, because there is no single answer to the question: it’s something you need to discover for yourself. In a time when arts education needs defending, this blog will try to stimulate others to think about why studying English literature and other humanities subjects is valuable.