1 August 2023 Susannah

The Study of Literature

English Literature

There’s a very worrying trend in universities at the moment – the over-pricing, devaluing and even dropping of an incredibly important subject – English Literature. A few British universities have ceased offering it as a stand-alone degree, the Australian government has made it much more expensive, and funding in many countries is being reduced when it comes to literature. This is a terrible state of affairs. English Literature is a ‘gateway’ subject, one that allows students to develop vital skills such as use of language, the ability to analyse and theorise, and an improved ability to express oneself. Whatever career comes afterwards, a study of literature opens the mind, introduces you to other cultures and beliefs, assists critical thinking, entertains, brings the past alive, and will prove invaluable in whatever job is then taken up. Author Philip Pullman puts it well when he says that the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes, but a spring of precious truth and life that every one of us is entitled to.”

It is important to remember that the three absolute basics of education are listed as the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic. Note that reading comes first in the list, and writing second – these are vital skills and tools. To those of us who read books, all the world is open – all lives, walks of life, all perspectives on life. We find ourselves reflected in books, we meet others in books, we travel, we are comforted, delighted, and we never stop learning if we read. On my very first day at university, I attended a lecture on Marlowe’s Dr Faustus – I knew I had found what Tiggers like best and will forever be grateful to all those who taught me English Literature at university. Long may others continue to study the subject that changed and enriched my life.

What do you think of the devaluing of literature studies? Did you take a literature degree during your study? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- People studying by cottonbro studio, https://www.pexels.com/photo/people-studying-inside-a-library-6344238/

Comments (28)

  1. Merete Colding Smith

    Thanks for your passionate defence of Literature! I’ve always been an avid reader in whatever language I came across. My first degree was in English Language and Literature from Copenhagen University in Denmark, it opened my eyes for a wonderful literary tradition. When my husband got an offer of a three-year post-doc to CSIRO in Melbourne with very little warning before our relocating, I was rather stunned, as I knew nothing about Australia, let alone Australlian literature. Fortunately, we had a wonderful Australian lecturer in Copenhagen, Bruce Clunies Ross, who gave me a reading list for a crash course in Australian literature along with a pile of books not in our library, including Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Miles Franklin, Thomas Keneally, Patrick White and Henry Handel Richardson. This list, along with a list of recommended wines, gave me a great start to life in Australia, and, gradually supplemented with more contemporary literary fare, a lasting love of Australian literature. Somehow, the three years became 40, here I am still.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      What a lovely introduction to Australia, through its literature. Those of us who love books are just so fortunate! Thanks for sharing your passion for books and your personal story.

  2. Margy

    My eventual choice of degree in English Literature (and History) wasn’t where I started but once I began I was in love. I do think how different my opinions might be coming to these subjects later with more life experience. My cousin’s son is about to start his degree in English Literature at Oxford (swoon) and I will be reading along to support him. I’m so looking forward to just enjoying the works with no papers and exams.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh what fun to be reading along with his Oxford degree. Do let me know what he is studying.
      I think our love of English Literature just grows and deepens with age.

  3. Fiona Shaw

    I asked my Dad to fund another year at Uni as I had been invited to do Honours in English Lit. His reply, “But what will that make you?” has always stayed with me. It made me a much better person, a critical thinker, a world traveller and an even stronger lover of books. It also helped make me a journalist and editor.
    Now I am trying to help my niece write essays for a pre Uni course, and I am so disappointed with her ability to use words to form arguments. If we cannot express ourselves clearly, how can we hope to succeed? Understanding others and making ourselves understood is a vital part of life, personally and professionally. Reading guides our self-expression.
    Obviously, Dad paid up in the end 😜

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Money well spent!!! To be able to express oneself clearly in words is a vital skill in life, and a love of books will provide learning, entertainment and richness throughout life. And literary travel is a wonderful added extra!

  4. BA in English Lit at the University of Sydney in the 1960s, where Howard Jacobson was one of our lecturers; PhD in English Literature from the University of New South Wales 2011. I taught English in New South Wales schools in the early 1970s. One of my books deals with Literary Links between Australia and Britain (an outcome of a joint exhibition from the National Library of Australia and the British Council, for which I was the curator, and a British Council grant to write it). So yes, English literature has been front and centre of much of my working (and non-working) life.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      And how much it has contributed to all the work you have done, Ros, with museums and cultural institutions. We are both so lucky to have a love of English Literature and been able to study it.

  5. Penny Morris

    Oops – excuse my spelling mistakes. Broader (not boroader) and learning (not learing)

  6. Penny Morris

    I also did a BA in English Lit as a mature student just for fun and was exposed to a range of novels I would never have thought to read. I think all first year uni courses should include an arts subject before corralling students into their chosen field. Most school graduates need more time and maturity before embarking on career training so should be encouraged / “forced” to a boroader scope of learing than just the specific course they have enrolled in.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I totally agree, and more employers are showing that they like to take on graduates with some arts in their degrees, which makes it hard to understand why governments are putting up the costs of such degrees.

  7. Jacqueline Marchant

    Devastated to hear that the study of English Literature is declining. As a retired teacher, my greatest joy was mentoring senior students (Year 12) in the Literature course. Teaching them Critical Thinking as a by-product, these students usually also embraced Philosophy and their grades across the subject improved markedly….
    These subjects are also declining in schools as classes are not commonly offered but are replaced by such subjects are the General English course and Psychology. Students who might have gained from undertaking English Literature and Philosophy (Qld Syllabus) are no longer offered them in many Queensland schools. No wonder they do not choose these at University.

  8. Vanessa Coldwell

    I studied English and American Literature in the U.S. in the early 1990s. I had been encouraged to read from a very early age and this has led to a life-long love of books. We had a young English teacher in my last year of school and it was her inclusion of Othello that sparked my love of Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature. I was the first person in my family to get a university degree. My parents loved books but had me when they were very young and attending uni was not an option then. My own daughters (19 and 13) have no interest in books…..despite being surrounded by books. I’m glad I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s when there were no iPhones! By the way, have you heard of a (very recent) Podcast called Hidden in Plain Sight (hiddeninplainsight.us/listen) about Kit Marlowe? I loved it and highly recommend it.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the podcast recommendation. I will listen to it when I am home from my travels.
      My children don’t do as much reading as I’d like them to do. I think life has changed now and they spend time on their various devices, but like you, I’m glad I grew up when books could be sthe major entertainer.

  9. Dennise

    I finished an Arts Degree in 2020 as a mature age student , Majoring in both English and Australian Literature. Today there is no ability to major in Australian Lit, only English Lit.

    This at the University that had the first Australian Chair in Australian Literature. Very sad state of affairs.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a disgrace that there is no chair of Australian Literature!!!!

  10. Leon Robinson

    I studied English lit at UWA in the early 70s and the focus was on literature up to modernism. Finishing with TS Eliot.

    Sister. Veronica Brady introduced Australian Literature into the curriculum in my last year there . It was presented as an option not the main subjects .

    At the moment I’m reading Vita and Virginia : The Work and Friendship of Vita Sackville-West and. Virginia Woolf by Suzanne Raitt , Clarendon Press, 1998. An excellent review of their different writing styles .

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for telling me about the book on Vita and Virginia – sounds fascinating.
      Yes, Australian Literature is usually an option at university, but at least kids these days get some in schools.

  11. Anne

    As a mature Uni student in recent years I had the opportunity to read Australian Literature as one of my units. After having lived in Australia for thirty years I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Australian authors but more than anything this unit opened my worldview to a society I hadn’t met before. I would encourage every new Australian to read Australian literature as then ‘everything fits into place’!!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, fiction is always the best way to understand a country you have moved to.

  12. Zora

    I have always regarded books as ” friends “, reliable and readable. I started reading ” Pride and Prejudice ” when I was nine and my first

    reading of Charles Dickens was ” Oliver Twist “, when I was twelve years old. My father’s office was crowded with books and my late

    parents always encouraged me to read. I studied English Literature at The University of Western Australia in 1974 and my final year of

    my Arts Degree in 1980. My whole world was opened up to D H Lawrence, James Joyce and the War Poets in 1974, and in my final year

    I studied William Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Mary Shelley’s ” Frankenstein “. An absolute feast was laid before

    me and I shall never forget that.

    I consider that it is so important to read good English Literature.

    I have a library of my own now and I can immerse myself in books whenever I wish. My books are my sanctuary.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, books are sanctuary, friends, educators and so much else! An arts degree opens our eyes to so much, as you have found!

  13. John

    I heartily agree with the importance of English Literature, although my own degree was in Mathematics. I recommend the book “In defence of a Liberal Education” by Fareed Zakaria, which makes a similar argument in a broader context. If you would like to borrow my copy, please send me an email. I strongly oppose the former Liberal government’s making Arts so much more expensive. It is a strange position for Liberals to take, as it costs far less to run Arts subjects than It does to run Science or Engineering, the latter requiring expensive equipment, so “the market” would suggest it should be cheaper rather than more expensive.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, please, John, I’d love to borrow it. Yes, arts degrees are much cheaper than the sciences, medicine etc, and it is so ahrd to understand that dire decision by the Liberal government to so greatly increase the cost of an arts degree.

  14. Jennifer Hatton

    Unable to continue my education beyond Year 10, as not enough emphasis was placed on education in my family especially for girls, literature offered me a pathway to educate myself beyond the classroom whilst opening up the world to me.
    I will forever be grateful to Charles Dickens, Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters.
    I wonder if the emphasis is being taken from literature because it truthfully records history.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      My mother had the same problem. Her father didn’t think girls needed to go to university, but she went later as a mature student and adored it.
      That’s an interesting speculation about books showing us the truth of history which is why governments don’t support the arts!

  15. Melody

    They really threw you in at the deep end with Dr Faustus on day one! But obviously you swam, rather than sank … My first university English Lit lecture was Robert Eagleson on Plain English; I don’t think we got to Marlowe until later in the year.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I guess it was starting with a ‘heavy’ but I still vividly remember my excitement. I knew I was in exactly the right place.

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