One particularly common and unwelcome side-effect of taking an English Literature degree is having to face the endless stream of mildly sarcastic or vitriolic comments on its supposed ‘uselessness’. A lot of my friends took Engineering degrees, or politics Degrees, or Medicine, courses which have a clearly outlined path of progression: in short, an obvious ‘use’. These friends would often tease me about my lack of employment prospects, about how ‘no one is going to pay you to read a book’. What is so often overlooked by those that make these comments is that, admittedly, the study of literature does not, in itself, have one single clearly defined practical ‘application’, but this is because the study of literature has a thousand broad, diverse and immeasurable uses and benefits that continue to influence and enrich the student well after their studies are completed.
When I teach my students English Language, I am equipping them with the tools to think critically about the literature that they consume. Not just books, but news articles, social media posts, the speeches of politicians and billionaires. I teach them to question everything, to analyse how a speaker or writer might be attempting to manipulate them, and for what purpose. In turn I teach them how they themselves may write convincingly, giving them the power to express their own thoughts, opinions and ideas, and carve their own place in the world with a voice to match.
When I teach my students English Literature, I teach them how to connect with the world around them and, more importantly, with the people in it. Through inhabiting the lives of others in fiction they are broadening their idea of what it means to be human, developing their ability to empathise and their capacity for compassion. Reading also helps students build their vocabulary, aiding their power to express themselves, and helps develop the imagination and capacity for lateral and creative thinking.
All of these qualities combine to enhance the entire student. When you study English Literature, you are not learning a ‘skill’ as such (although writing and critical reading are considered skills by most employers), you are building strength of character. English Literature is one of the most versatile degree courses available as the skills it equips you with will be immeasurably valuable no matter what path you eventually decide to pursue. The development that takes place while studying English, from Key Stage 1 to Degree Level, cannot be forgotten or written over. It only grows with the passing of time.
While I sometimes wish I had graduated with a clearer path in front of me, I will never not be grateful for the freedom that my studies have given me. Not only do I now feel that I have much to contribute to the workplace (and to my students), but I also feel that I have a lot to offer to the world at large, and to the people around me. In short, English literature is far, far from ‘useless’.