The Wasteland for English Lit, or Silicon Valley?


I’ve been heartened to read of the re-evaluated value of the liberal arts major in the tech industry.

As a ‘liberal arts major’ myself (or, in British vernacular, a BA (Hons) in English Literature & Drama), I’m glad to see my kind of degree hasn’t been completely disregarded by any industry – one could easily have been lead to believe otherwise recently.

Student numbers are dwindling. I’m not really surprised reading the Whatuni guide on studying English Literature. It does sound a trifle, well, fey.

According to The Telegraph, it neither features in the top 12 list of degrees employers look for, nor on the top 10 list for most popular degree subjects studied.

Nothing will come of nothing.

King Lear, Act One, Scene One

So, is this the final chapter for English Literature, or, at least, will it’s future be a very slim volume, a novella, as it were, on the shelf of academic tomes?

To try to answer that, I suppose I have to ask myself what did I really get from all that Plath and Post-Modernism and Stanislavsky?

Well, now I’m some twenty years away from it (though not quite yet from graduating, I hasten to add), I have to give a big shout out to Queen Mary, where I studied.

The range of their Arts faculty was incredible, and the courses we had – Greek myths, Fairy tales, Film analysis, Cyber Lit, 20th Century Poetry (of course, mixed in with your classics, the Victorian Novel, tons of Shakespeare, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Colonialism, Post-Colonialism)…we studied the world, humanity – past, present and future.

(I have to confess; I probably didn’t read another novel again after graduating for about two years. It probably took me another ten to learn to read one purely for enjoyment without feeling the need to dissect it).

Even then, there were plenty of things I had to read that offered no enjoyment whatsoever. I’m tempted to save offense and not list any of them here, but I really struggled with Beowulf, Joyce, Wuthering Heights and Thomas Pynchon (I have deliberately revisited all of them since, and still struggle – I’m sorry Cathy and Heathcliff, but frankly, I still don’t give a damn).

Chaucer and Woolf and Jane Eyre and Douglas Coupland, Dostoyevsky and Angela Carter, Wilkie Collins and T. S. Eliot, however, these I devoured, and when I think about it now, the list was endless. I can’t even remember a tenth of what I read, and that’s not including all the criticism (not of me personally, you understand).

And what did it teach me?

Pragmatically – to be able to take in a lot of information at once, to be able to zone in on the pivotal words in a text or moments in a drama; to be detective, analyst, researcher, psychologist, sociologist, historian and futurologist.

About the world: it taught me everything’s political; everything’s social; everything’s psychological; and everything’s individual.

That being human is to perceive, to interpret, to distort and to desire truth.

(And you only needed to take the Shakespeare course to get all that).

These are good lessons, good skills. An English Lit degree gives your brain a kind of elasticity that’s really helpful in any workplace. Just think of how many tiny details, incidental facts, you pick up – how many micro-worlds you can delve into – when you open a novel, step into a play.

You end up knowing a little bit about an awful lot – and knowing a little bit, a starting point, in our algorithmic world, is a very useful skill indeed.

But I think [ooh, you might be questioning whether I got a degree at all with my cavalier way of starting sentences with Ands and Buts, but I was subsequently trained as an advertising copywriter and always told to break rules] the biggest lesson I learned from my liberal arts degree, when you boil it all down (and learning to do that, distilling, was another one) was a very simple one:

Finding the right words can turn ideas into actions.

And every industry will always need people who can help them do that, right?


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