On studying literature

March 25, 2014

Is it a self-indulgent waste of time?

I’ve faced this question a number of times, and it seems more urgent in these crazy economic times, when reading for a degree at an English university costs such a ridiculous amount of money. Surely all those thousands of pounds might be better spent?

I realise I’m not really qualified to answer that question: I received a free university education, for three degrees and a teaching qualification, and grants for eight years to fund my living costs whilst I studied. I don’t feel guilty about any of that, as I felt the country was investing in both my and its future, I then went on to teach for twenty-eight years, and repaid all the money the taxpayer spent on my education many times over. I think today’s students (although possibly rather fewer of them) are entitled to the same offer.

However, that doesn’t answer the question. As a student I hitch-hiked many thousands of miles in Britain and Europe, and it was a challenge, when a helpful lorry-driver asked me what the point of my studies was, or why he should be supporting me through his taxes. I always tried to justify the study of literature, and was listened to.

I have always felt it’s important to study something you are really passionate about: you only get one go at being a student, and it shouldn’t feel like a dose of castor oil. I have also always felt that a university education is about training one’s mind and intellectual capability, and that, in the end, most university courses do this to the same extent, whatever the subject of the degree, and that an employer is going to be hiring you for your mind, and what you have shown it to be capable of.

I recognise that increasingly this may not be the case, but, higher education does often lead to higher earning power and therefore paying more in taxation. So the debt is repaid in the end. And, if one works in a career which I would describe as service to the community, the debt is repaid in another way too: you are giving back what you have learned, to future generations.

A nation is not just the sum total of its economic achievement: its art and culture, for want of better words, are part of the sum total by which we may judge its level of civilisation, and though there is much in our country’s history which I abominate and execrate, there is an enormous amount of which we may justly be proud, and if future generations do not learn about it, then it will be lost, and we will be the poorer for this. It was very satisfying introducing students to a wide range of literature in a wonderful language. And, most of the time, it was highly enjoyable as a career, and that is something which is not granted to everyone, and for which I am grateful.

So yes, we do need people to study literature out of their love for it, and some of those need to go on to disseminate that to future generations. And we all need to be challenging and tackling the philistines out there who deny the importance of this aspect of our lives.

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