But... Why Study English Literature?

By Prof. Rick Rylance

So maybe you like like the idea of doing English at uni: reading great books and learning about language. You might still wonder what the point is of studying literature as an academic—what do English studies give to us, and what’s the goal of all that work? In this essay, Prof. Rylance talks about what the discipline of English studies means for him—and how you can decide what it means for you, too…

Photo of the author, Prof. Rick Rylance

Rick Rylance is a former Professor of English at the University of Exeter and now Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.. He specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and intellectual history, particularly in the Victorian and post-war periods.

The usual narrative of the development of English as a discipline is big on grand designs. In the 1860s Matthew Arnold thought that the appreciation of literature should supplant religion in providing spiritual nourishment in industrial life. F.R. Leavis, from the 1930s, continued this argument. He claimed that utilitarian values had so throttled the life force of twentieth-century culture, that it was only in reading really great literature that our moral and spiritual bearings could be recovered. More recently, the more politicised side of ‘literary theory’ (though in itself a beast with many shapes) proposed cultural criticism as a way of resisting ideological incorporation into the same social norms.

All of these views have had their impact across the education system. Arnold was an inspector of schools. Many Leavisites took their crusade from the varsity to the secondary school, where they worked as influential teachers or teacher trainers. Lately literary theory has made a slightly shy entry into the ‘A’ level curriculum.

Grand designs make good historical copy, and, at a personal level, can turn a career into a vocation. However, as an account of the discipline, they are aspirational rather than descriptive. Bringing purpose, direction, energy and commitment, they established a rationale for ‘doing English’ that many have found motivating and persuasive. But, alongside these strong, crusading narratives, English has always included a good deal of more mundane activity, a functional pedagogy of communication for instance, towards which some cultural missionaries have paid scant regard. There is something un-heroic about this aspect of English, a petty business that might detain preparations for the crusade.

In this piece I want to try to get away from heroic tales because I don’t believe them. Not being religious, I don’t need a substitute. And I do not believe that cultural criticism, any more than Leavisite habits of ‘feeling life’, brings salvation. Being a pragmatist (in the philosophical as well as the practical sense) I do not believe that there are any theories exempt from ideology or the claims of context and contingency. But I do believe that English is important and I want to go on working in it. Why?

I think this because I hold a cluster of beliefs about which I am prepared to argue – though not here in their entirety perhaps. I think, for instance, that great literary writing is important (though I don’t believe in a canon of ‘great works’ or authors), because aesthetic pleasure is an important resource in human culture and for human achievement. I think that the style of intensely dialectical, often unresolved exploration that characterises the intellectual achievement of major literary texts is a style of thinking appropriate to our times and human situation in which, as far as I can see, values are mainly provisional and consensual. I believe that the mode of knowledge with which we engage when we discuss literature – open, discursive, provisional, revisable, intersubjective – is emblematic of the way values should operate in societies like our own. I also believe in the importance of clear, successful communication and, in a rather Orwellian way, that it is a political and ethical imperative to spread this as widely as possible.

“I want people who enjoy reading in all of its shapes and sizes, and who take pleasure in appreciating or performing acts of language.”

In my humdrum, pedestrian map of the subject, English includes three central activities. It is, humbly, a three-legged stool if you like, and, in order to support any weight, all three legs are essential. In no hierarchical order, there is, first, the cultural aspect, in which students and teachers engage primarily with literary texts (though engagement with other sorts of text is possible and, I think, desirable) in order to enable discussion of issues and values. Second, there is the functional or instrumental aspect in which students and teachers acquire and understand modes of communication and how to operate them successfully. Finally, there is the creative aspect. This is of increasing importance and includes not only ‘creative writing’, but also the broad appreciation of intellectual and aesthetic creativity and originality. This third aspect is a relatively late development in the evolution of the subject, and is likely to be a growth area in the future. In its pedagogy it highlights the necessity of understanding through doing – but that, I think, is characteristic in different ways of all three aspects.

Clearly these three aspects overlap, intersect and are mutually dependent. Understanding text in the ways indicated in the first ‘cultural’ aspect, for example, clearly depends on being able to operate successfully in the second ‘functional’ area. The different aspects overall are also mutually inclusive, and in describing them I have deliberately tried to draw them with wide, accommodating boundaries. By ‘issues and values’, for example, I mean not just politics, ethics or matters of ‘personal development’, but questions of cultural and aesthetic quality and importance. By ‘functional or instrumental’, I don’t have in mind merely the ability to write and speak effectively, spell correctly and know where to put an apostrophe, but also the understanding and appreciation of the function of style, argument and persuasion, and the way in which ideas are managed in intersubjective discourse. In the third aspect, functioning creatively in writing and speech requires some developed awareness of how effective communication has occurred in the past, and of the ways in which creative traditions thrive, develop and are expanded.

To describe things generally always risks stating the obvious, and I don’t think there is anything especially fresh or invigorating about these generalisations. What I do think, however, is that much debate within and about English in recent years has too often got bogged down, on the one side, in partisan and sometimes messianic visions of the subject, and, on the other, in the minute detail of operational matters like the nature of the syllabus or the protocols of particular assessment regimes. It is of course essential to be painstaking here, and to think operations through with care to consequence and efficiency. But I’ve increasingly started to think that such matters have come to preoccupy and distract, to clog things up in routine and bureaucracy about mark schemes, the checks and balances of a curriculum, the requirements of modular learning, quality assurance, and so on. Fair, efficient administration is always essential, but it should not make dismal or pointy-headed what is gratifying, generous-spirited and creative.

From time to time I am asked what it is that higher education wants from students arriving to study English. The answer, for me, is simple. I want people with experience of how to read all sorts of things (not just novels) with the skill and care of which they are capable. I want people who can attempt to communicate effectively and with curiosity, and who are concerned to develop this. Finally, I want people who enjoy reading in all of its shapes and sizes, and who take pleasure in appreciating or performing acts of language. Of these three, it seems to me just now that it may be the last that is the most important. As we speculate on how English will evolve over the coming years, there needs to be a strong voice for the pleasure principle and the joy of words, and an account of English that has this among its primary aims.