As the pressure mounts on the next generation to have ‘practical’, ‘relevant’, and arguably more ‘vocational’ skills that will lead their paths down a clear career route, it’s left many young people disillusioned and concerned. It could be suggested that students now fear the pursuit of an arts or humanities subject, deeming subjects like English Literature as irrelevant and out of touch with today’s demanding world. As you are reading this, it may already be quite clear to you that this article will be a call to arms against this troubling school of thought. Yes, whilst English Literature may be a subject steeped in tradition and lots of (let’s face it) old musty books, literature is more relevant and necessary than ever. Here are the 5 reasons why and they aren’t just centred around spelling.
Imagination and Creativity
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any young child who picks up a JK Rowling, Road Dahl or C.S.Lewis book will be immediately transported to a fantasy world beyond their wildest dreams, because let’s face it – we read to stimulate our imagination and creativity! Whilst movies and the television are remarkable twenty-first century technologies that inspire, there is nothing quite like the humble book. Reading literature and the study of it allows a student to be playful, to see the world in a vast, technicoloured form, fluid and ever-shifting. Crucially, they are the creators of that world. In a society that increasingly dictates to young people how the world should look and work, it is our duty, I believe, to keep the fascination of the book alive. Whether graphic novel or short story, books are pure, liquid magic that provide a child (and adult) with a narrative of hope, choice and possibility.
Compassion and the Human Experience
Reading stimulates our imagination and brain. The study of English Literature is integral to our survival and our morality because it’s one of the few subjects that forces us to question the very literal world around us. Books allow previously conceived notions of society or people to be debunked in order to portray a humane view of often controversial or difficult experiences and issues. In the writer’s world, characters are just as fallible, complex and idiosyncratic as us. This realisation is equally liberating to the reader and acts as a mirror reflecting on our own image and actions within society. Whilst some novels like Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’ Tale’ or George Orwell ‘Animal Farm’ inspire change and social revolution, some texts encourage simple rumination to be more a compassionate member of the community.
Context and History
Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘The History Boys’ once hilariously described history as just ‘One thing, after another’ (yes, the discerning amongst you may have noticed that that is a clean version of that quote). To understand history is to recognise that everything is a cause and effect and to be able to piece together a delicate, complex thread of events always cements the comprehension of that particular point in time. For me, the study of English Literature is totally unique in allowing you to passionately gorge upon the fascinating history of the book and the relevant context for the characters in a totally accessible way.
By looking at history in a character driven light, we the reader become totally invested in the life of that period rather than being able to mundanely recite tables of dates. History can truly come to life in the world of a novel and also allow writers like Dickens to shine a light on social issues of the time. Fundamentally, protagonists like Oliver Twist, Pip and Ebenezer Scrooge make Victorian class barriers and extreme poverty all the more evocative and heart-breaking. I mean, he only wanted one more measly bowl of gruel, right?!
Modern Issues and Conflicts
Students are regularly forgiven for believing that literature is merely the study of old books that no longer speak to people. Whilst I totally disagree with this view, it is true that we must continue to inject as much modern twentieth-century literature into the education syllabus and reading patterns of our newest generation as possible. School syllabuses are always trying to explore modern pathways, and now some A level boards are attempting to penetrate this issue even further. Syllabuses now dive into many complex worlds including post-colonial and immigrant experience literature or the modern feminist in literature, proving that the subject is always at the forefront of contemporary issues. Narratives like Moshin Hamid’s ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ resonate with a post 9/11 society that now recognises the destructive impacts of religiously framed prejudice, discrimination and violence that spread hate and fear. Furthermore, playwrights also continue to push the boundaries of social responsibility and generalisations, attacking the difficult problems perhaps other mediums struggle to face. Literature remains arguably unique in its ability to resonate with the political, social, cultural attitudes and issues of the day often within the very moment itself.
Vocabulary and Self-Expression
Last, but certainly not least, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that the study of English Literature fundamentally evolves your personal vocabulary, and noticeably gifts students an enlightened ability of self-expression and articulation. We all often struggle to explain our opinions and so, whilst the study of English can do wonders for your grammar, it’s your voracious desire to communicate that English Literature groupies are most proud of. Whether in the classroom, playground, work or with your friends, whether tomorrow or ten years down the line, there is nothing more freeing and empowering than having a plethora of words and bags of confidence at your fingertips.
By Rebecca W, private English tutor in London.
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