A couple of days before I wrote this article, I ended up re-reading one of my favourite online newspaper articles. It is an article written by a university lecturer in Australia, talking about the problems she’s faced teaching English literature to modern students.
Although I’ve never been to Australia and the closest thing to teaching I’ve ever done is writing these articles, I still find the lecturer’s article absolutely fascinating since it usually makes me think about all of the English lit lectures and lessons I’ve attended (as a pupil or a student) in the past.
Most of all, it reminds me just how useful all of this “basic training” was. How, despite the fact that some of it was a little on the boring side, it has actually come in handy in all sorts of ways.
So, for anyone thinking that English lit lectures and/or lessons are a waste of time, here are two of the many practical reasons why they’re secretly really, really useful.
1) It’s about thinking for yourself: One of the great things about studying English lit formally is that it teaches you to take a deeper look at things. It not only teaches you to look at what writers are doing and why, but it also teaches you to look at the context that something was written in. This may all sound very theoretical and academic, but it can be useful in so, so many ways. Here are a few examples:
If you’ve ever wanted to write an online review of something then knowing how to study, “reverse-engineer” and/or examine things in detail will result in a much better and more interesting review than just “I really liked it because it was fun“. And, although English lit lessons/lectures will usually focus on examining rather boring texts, this is just to teach you how to apply these skills to more interesting stuff.
These skills are also incredibly useful when doing something as simple as looking at the news. If you know all of the techniques that writers can use to achieve a particular effect, then it’ll make it slightly easier for you to spot things like political bias, emotive/manipulative journalism etc… in the news reports you read online or in the paper. It can also help you to look at advertising more critically too, which means you are less likely to be swayed by it.
Plus, learning to look at the context can also help you to make sense of all sorts of things too.
For example, if you’ve ever wondered why Hollywood films from the 1990s are so much more cheerful and optimistic than modern films usually are, it’s probably because they were made after the end of the Cold War and before 9/11 (eg: a period of history where people were genuinely optimistic about the future). So, learning to look for the context will help you understand a lot of things a lot better.
Formally studying a piece of literature also trains you to look for connections and patterns (eg: what influenced this book? How does it relate to other books? etc..), and to think more deeply about everything (eg: why does the author write in this way? What is the author trying to say? etc..). And, needless to say, these are skills that are useful for pretty much everything.
2) The set texts are boring for a good, useful reason: Yes, there’s actually a good practical reason why the set texts in many English lit lessons and lectures are often so thunderously, drearily dull.
Boring, old books are usually chosen as set texts to boost your confidence. Simply put, if you can learn how to read and understand novels from 200 years ago or earlier, then pretty much anything becomes easily readable afterwards.
When you read formal documents, you’ll glide through them with ease. If you find an interesting novel from the 1920s-60s, reading it will seem like child’s play by comparison.
If you read a more slow-paced or “high-brow” modern book, it’ll still seem easy in comparison to the musty old set texts you had to slog through during your English lit lectures/lessons. The boredom and difficulty of reading old set texts is designed to make you feel confident about reading everything else.
In other words, if you can get through things written by Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen and/or Dickens (even with help and tuition), then you’ll be able to read literally everything else with confidence and ease. So, yes, boring old books are often taught in English lit lessons and lectures for a very good reason. It makes reading and understanding even the most boring or difficult modern things seem like a breeze by comparison.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂