In Defence of English

The_MonkRecently I was interviewed by a journalist from the Daily Mail about Gothic literature on university courses, inspired by Manchester Metropolitan University’s forthcoming MA in Gothic Studies. The article was published on the newspaper’s website (you can read it here) and is, in itself, fairly bland, though it does prioritise Twilight over any other form of Gothic fiction. I suppose I should have seen it coming – ‘Degrees in Twilight!’ is the overall message, and one which Daily Mail readers seem to have lapped up. The comments on the article are fascinating: though there are one or two voices of sanity, most are horrified, along the lines of ‘These students will never get jobs’, ‘It’s a Mickey Mouse degree’, ‘This isn’t an academic subject’, etc. As someone whose research interests cluster around Gothic, it is rather sad to see the complete misunderstanding of English Literature as a subject, let alone Gothic as a part of the subject, by some people. On the other hand, it’s good to know what people think of it, in order to address such misconceptions, because many of the comments made seem to be attacking English degrees in general, as though reading books is just a hobby and not something to be taken seriously. As students get their A-level results and prepare for university, this is something to ponder – what is the value of an English degree?

English Literature degrees are something to be taken very seriously, and those who think that they are an easy option which don’t lead to a job are missing the point. It’s true, of course, that English is not a degree which is vocational and leads directly to a career. Rather, graduates of English develop a range of transferable skills which enable them to find work in a variety of careers. An English degree encourages careful reading and serious and logical thought; it encourages students to reflect on the world around them, and to engage with many different viewpoints. Students of literature should be able to write well, fluently and for a range of audiences, and analyse concepts clearly in their writing. These are just some examples of the skills students might gain which are useful in the workplace. Many of my students go on to be English teachers; many also go into journalism, but ask around and you will see how many people, from administrators to politicians, directors of companies to editors, marketing and PR executives to librarians, have English or Humanities degrees. Often, the flexibility of approach and range of skills and interests and English degree develops makes graduates more employable than those who have very specific, vocational skills which quickly go out of date.books

However, I am not writing just about employability. A passion for your subject is vital, and doing an English degree is much more than hoping for a job after you graduate: it is also about helping students to find their own interests, to develop their own reading and writing styles, and giving them the opportunity to explore the world which literature opens up. Literature genuinely enriches lives: it changes people’s minds, transforms us, and it can be a part of social change, too. Literature, like all the arts, not only reflects society but can also be an agent of social change; it can start revolutions. Yet it is not just of its time, but can speak to future readers, too. A degree in English Literature will cover not only poetry, novels and non-fiction such as autobiography and essays, it will also encompass history, sociology, art, psychology, science, religion, and many other things besides. It is completely eye-opening.

The underlying structures and assumptions and forms of the writing produced in a culture reflect the structure and assumptions of that culture. Reading, deeply and thoroughly, permits us an understanding of the world around us, and the worlds that went before: a good historical knowledge and understanding of literature means that we can appreciate how we got where we are now. The new (or old) ideas that literature exposes us to are vital for developing our own thoughts and for beginning to understand society, people, relationships, emotions. Studying literature in this structured and informed way does much, much more than fitting graduates for a job; it offers a rounded education which allows us to develop ourselves as well as our careers. It also gives students the ability to distinguish literature which is ‘good’, whatever that means, from that which isn’t, and permits a fresh and informed perspective on popular books as well as classics.

Of course, books are something that everyone can enjoy, and this, I suppose, is where people think that literature is more of a hobby than a subject for serious study. But the depth of reading and understanding that an English degree requires is something that few are have time to athe-mysteries-of-udolpho-by-ann-radcliffechieve as a hobby. It is a discipline, both in the academic sense and in the moral sense, and reading, understanding and preserving our literary heritage is very important; moreover, our creative cultures are vital for society.

I must also say a little in defence of Gothic, since it seems to be so widely misunderstood. Gothic literature has always been not only a mode of telling a ripping yarn, with a great deal of symbolism and narrative strategy woven into it, but it is also a literary way for expressing the suppressed: from politics and religion, to same-sex desire or forbidden love, to family secrets and women’s oppression, the Gothic offers a vehicle for things that we can’t always say out loud. This is perhaps the most important reason that it is important, because what a society represses from the mainstream is almost more significant than what is apparent on the surface. So whether a Gothic novel is from the 1790s or the 2010s, it’s likely to be not only an interesting novel but also a kind of social document, which tells us about literature, society and the human condition.

If you are still not convinced, you might want to have a look at Why Study English?, a website supported by the Higher Education Academy. I’d also strongly recommend ‘The Humanities Matter’, a great infographic from UCL.

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8 thoughts on “In Defence of English

  1. It’s very true what you say that the importance and modern relevance of Gothic Literature is both underestimated and misunderstood. Not really surprising as many modern stories which claim to be ‘gothic’ do not contain a shred of introspective reflection on the psyche or the timeless symbolism that gives true gothic tales their value. Thankyou for your words of wisdom on the subject,
    Blessings, Bia.

  2. Thank you! Yes, I think there is a lot of modern misconception about what Gothic actually is. Perhaps that is a subject for another post!

  3. @Serena: great article.:) And (also @biahelvetti) I agree the Gothic is usually greatly misunderstood. More often than not, what seems to be taken for ‘Gothic’ is in fact just the use of ‘Gothic’ props, rather than the complex and externalising engagement with the ‘inner self’ and with suppressed social and psychological issues. I’d love to read a separate post on this.

  4. Yes, exactly! There are so many popular misconceptions about Gothic. I will put my mind to writing a post about Gothic at some point. Thank you!

  5. I studied English Literature at university, and literally just made my first blog post about the relevance of the subject too. I studied a Gothic module in my final year 🙂 I am tired of hearing that the degree is a “Mickey Mouse” subject and whatnot. Great post!

  6. The responses to the article, and the article itself, and the fact that journalist saw the newsworthiness in the focus on “Twilight” rather than anything else, all simply reflective how hugely Philistine the majority of British people are.

    The record numbers of people going to university despite ridiculously expensive fees has little to do with learning or education, but lots to do with the desperate fear of students and their parents wanting to be “middle class” rather than, horror of horror – “working class”.

    The paradox of this fear of being “common” and yet simultaneously being Philistine, is symptomatic of the capitalist realism which Mark Fisher and others write about, as well as the obsession with choosing our identities (rather than being born into them) that Zygmunt Bauman writes about.

  7. Thank you. I think people just don’t understand what an English degree is or what it entails! I like your blog post on it. Perhaps we can change people’s minds one blog post at a time…!

  8. There are certainly a lot of social reasons why people might choose to go to university, some more dubious than others. I try not to think of people as Philistines, more as simply ignorant of what academic pursuits involve, but I am an eternal optimist and want to encourage people to find out about it. I suppose this is why academics need to pursue public engagement where possible. I would like to think that the class implications of university education were not the most important aspect, though!

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