If you decide to study English literature beyond GCSE, it is important that you ask yourself "why" and justify your choice. Whether you are a bookworm wanting to pursue your love of literature, or see the subject as a way to develop your communication skills, there really is no right answer.
It wasn’t until my English literature degree was over, once the exams were done and the marks were in, that anybody really asked me to ponder what the point of it all was. The man who posed that all-important question was my Director of Studies at Cambridge University. He wanted me and my fellow students to explain what a literature degree was for. Here we were, a bunch of bright young things at the end of three years of intensive study, basking in the glow of our shiny new degrees, and none of us had a persuasive answer to his question.
Now, perhaps this doesn’t surprise you! Perhaps you are not convinced that there is a point to studying literature. Maybe the study of English has been such a permanent feature of your education that you’ve started to take it for granted without really interrogating what it’s for. Perhaps you love reading, but you’re not sure how to justify your choice to study English at A-Level or degree level. Your confusion is entirely reasonable. It’s a big question without a definitive answer.
You might be surprised to know that the study of English literature is a modern phenomenon. It didn’t really become fashionable as a subject until after the First World War. According to literary critic Terry Eagleton, “In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else”.
Once the subject got going, it had big ambitions. Indeed, the early professors of literature thought it was so important that it should replace religion in the spiritual life of the nation. George Gordon, an early Professor of English literature at Oxford, said at the time, “England is sick, and … English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State”.
Eagleton explains, “English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence – what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationships with others, to live from the vital centre of the most essential values – were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny”. Whether or not you agree with the idea of literature as a moral or spiritual endeavour, this way of thinking has already had a big impact on your education, shaping the way that English has been thought about and taught in schools ever since.
There are, of course, less grandiose reasons for studying English, not least because it makes us successful communicators. Our society relies on people who can explain their ideas in a compelling way. It also needs expert listeners and readers who can interrogate and evaluate those ideas. Literature is also a way of fostering empathy, helping us to understand other cultures, values and experiences.
There is another, perhaps more radical, answer to the question of why you should study literature. Perhaps the pleasure you get from reading great works of literature is enough of a justification in its own right. Perhaps you don’t need a moral or intellectual or practical justification for your choice. Maybe you should study literature for no other reason than because you enjoy it. You are certainly more likely to succeed at something that you enjoy.
Whatever your motivation, there is no doubt that if you do decide to study literature after GCSE, you will be expected to justify your choice. As it becomes more expensive to go to university, there is a big emphasis on vocational subjects with a clear career trajectory, and English is sometimes seen as a “soft” option.
In the end, there is no right answer to this question. It’s something that you will need to think about and answer for yourself, and that’s what the study of English is all about: pondering questions that don’t have a right answer but are worth thinking about anyway. I hope it is clear from this blog post that the subject is as intellectually demanding as it is rewarding.