In defence of English Literature and the arts

When I found myself sitting at a linguistics event on the initial offer holders day at the university I was to eventually attend, the lecturer started his course introduction by saying “if you wish to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and challenge you every day, this is the place to do it”. I was in awe of the proposed teaching list for my course, English Language and Literature, but at the time, didn’t realise that I would in fact end up finding myself surrounded by people who believed themselves to be smarter than me. 

Having finished my first year, I have been exposed to a variety of opinions on my choice in course, with consistent negative responses from my STEM peers. I am lucky enough to have made lots of friends at Uni who study in STEM based courses, the majority of whom have at one point or another, made jokes regarding the difficulty of my course, or at the extreme end of some senses of humour, about my overall intelligence. While to some the idea of studying English, or even any arts or humanities subject, is easy, I struggle to see how this idea has prevailed in our society. Speaking personally, I worked extremely hard to get into my university of choice, which is in fact best in the UK and in the top 3 institutions in the world for my course.

For reference, in terms of my marks, as an IB student my final score put me in the top 3.46% of students globally, and I finished high school speaking 2 languages, with accreditations from international theatre organisations, as well as several sports and community service honours, due to the mandated CAS program within the IB. Yet, despite how hard I worked to achieve what I did, I still found my intelligence and the value of my degree coming into question. Why is it that this is such a common view within social circles that degrees such as English Literature, or arts-based studies, are worth less than those in STEM? 

Perhaps this belief is to do with perceived job opportunities or annual salaries on graduation. While I can acknowledge that English Literature has a somewhat dismal predicted salary for the average recent graduate, there are many influential people who have chosen to study English literature, including Steven Fry, Joan Rivers, Martin Scorsese, Steven King, Barbara Walters, Grant Tinker (former CEO of NBC), Harold Varmus, Bob Woodward and Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas just to name a few. As one can see from this list, studying English literature allows for a wide range of future possibilities for students, whether this be an entry into politics, journalism, a career in writing or even in comedy. 

While even I will admit the image of the starving writer, huddling over a ball point pen by a candlelight is what first comes to mind in reference to an English degree (and is to a certain extent quite amusing), degrees based in the arts and humanities such as English Literature can be incredibly versatile, and lead to any number of future career possibilities, some of which are of the utmost value to society and of an highly intellectual nature. Not everyone who studies an arts degree will succeed, nor reach the height of fame, but the same can be said for anyone studying a STEM subject. 

Not everyone is going to end up in a successful job or doing what they set out to achieve at the beginning of their career, but that’s just the luck of life. Further, there is much more to life than earning money. Although many may take on courses of studies with the expressed intention of doing so to obtain a high salary, this is not a driving force for everyone. Thus, the opinion that English Literature is only a stepping-stone to failure and destitution is evidently a moot point, as it can provide great success, whatever this may manifest itself as to an individual. 

A further criticism of Literature, along with other arts degrees, is that it is seemingly ‘easy’. This is the comment I receive arguably most often, and that has the most negative impact, as it acts to belittle my degree, and to a certain extent my place within the university. As I am sure is the case with all students of the arts, it is very easy for those outside of our study environment to feel as though they could do our degrees with their eyes closed. Having read several of the essays of my STEM peers (as, in many eyes, if there is one thing an English Literature degree is good for, it is proofreading) I can confidently say that they could not. In the same way that I would be unable to succeed in a biology lab, or taking a chemistry exam, I am fully aware that many of my science-based peers would be unable to write an English essay with the proficiency or with any of the depth of analysis that is expected of me within my degree. 

Furthermore, while I am never pushed to solve difficult maths problems, or to learn the periodic table, the workload for my course, as with all arts courses, is just as heavy as those within STEM, as each lecture is based on a new text, or in some cases several texts, and with 3 or 4 lectures a week, this is no small challenge to keep up with. Additionally, for my weekly English Literature tutorial I was expected to read and analyse a book or play in advance, not to mention the reading and work I was expected to complete for my linguistics and elective courses. I am by no means complaining about my workload, but I am well aware that this would seem impossible to those who are not driven by a love for literature as I am. Here, I am attempting to illustrate that arts degrees are by no means easy. 

Ironically, however, had I made the choice to study a STEM subject at an extended level, as I had a strong desire to study medicine until my IB years, I am fully certain that I would have been able to achieve the necessary grades to do so. Strangely enough, in conversation with many of my friends in medicine, they seemed to have the same crisis of faith, in the choice between a career in medicine or one in journalism (as I intend to have using my English degree) just as I had, showing an interesting link between science-based and more creative pursuits. 

Where does this choice come from? I have had a similar conversation with a friend who studies Economics and Philosophy, and who, despite their apparent hatred for the former part of their degree, refuses to change their course to straight philosophy for fear of failing to find a job, or receiving judgment from their parents. While this can be a difficult choice to make, perhaps it must be noted that it does take some degree of bravery to study what brings you joy, over what you think is the choice that will make your parents or anyone else happy, especially considering the evident negative connotations of degrees that don’t carry a clear career path. 

It must be remembered, especially now, that it is in times of crisis that we turn to artists. It is films, books, music and creative pursuits that many choose to fill their time with now that we are in excess. Without artists, without the young and driven arts students at work today, we would be finding ourselves lacking in this time. It may be easy to make jokes at the expense of those studying creative pursuits, and at times even I can admit this can be extremely amusing, yet it is important to note the extreme value and merit of these channels of studies. It takes guts, passion and talent to pursue these subjects – and while some of my friends may not realise it – not all of them would be able to do it, despite how easy we arts students manage to make it look.

Image: Ginny via Wikimedia Commons

 

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The Student Newspaper 2016