Why do we study English, anyway?

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“Miss L,” a student began, looking up at me from her desk to where I, as a novice teacher stood at the front of the room and asked me one of those crucial questions that throws a lesson plan out the window; she asked:

“Why do we study English, anyway?” 

Whether you teach English literature at the high school or university level, at some point, you are likely to run into this question or a version of this question (“Why do we study Shakespeare?” “Why do we have to read novels?” etc.). 

There are a number of different ways of answering this question, and I’ve thought long and hard about it throughout my adult life. 

Disclaimer: I am passionate about learning; I am passionate about critical thinking and critical writing; and I have dedicated my life to trying to help students harness the power and beauty of the English language to be empowered. So, I might be a bit biased here!

Books - blog.jpgNot all English teachers or professors will necessarily agree with my own pedagogical philosophy and why I loved teaching English, but that’s why I have great love for notions of academic freedom; it allows different academics to approach disciplines with different commitments and philosophies, and those disciplines and the students exposed to them are the richer for it.

So when that student asked me her question, it was an uncomfortable question, but it was also a gift; it was a gift to throw out my lesson plan for that day and answer why we study literature, why critical reading and writing matters.

Here’s my answer:

  1. Empowerment: I believe that through studying literature, the art of rhetoric, and the craft of academic prose students gain critical reading and writing skills. They learn to think critically about the world of “text” in which they find themselves, and, thus, have power to analyze and critique anything from a political speech to an advertisement to a piece of literature.

  2. Critical Thinking: I believe in the value of a humanist and liberal arts education. Our society puts cultural significance on certain literary texts and figures, and students should not only be exposed to those in order to validate that cultural approbation, but also to (re)evaluate those very categories.

  3. Fun: I believe in the pure pleasure and joy that reading and analysis can offer students. Whether they are able to engage with a text through the satisfying recognition of identifying with its characters or situations, or through the gratifying escape into an utterly unknown environment, or through the sheer joy of the literary skill with which the author has crafted a text, I think that there should be enjoyment in the study of literature.

Others have said that teaching and studying literature leads to greater empathy and allows us access to our imaginative faculties. Some believe that literature offers us an opportunity for knowledge of the self and of the other that we cannot achieve in other ways. Others yet add to this exhaustive list the tangible benefits to one’s own writing achieved through studying literature.

Whatever your reasons might be, rest assured that there are those of us who love teaching and studying English literature and will be only too happy to debate passionately with you about why literature matters. 

But first you’ll have to convince us to put down that good book we’re reading…

  

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