The Dubious Good of an English Lit Degree, Part Two

In my former post, Theophilus, I mentioned the astonishment of a fellow undergrad, Back in the Day, that anyone would want to study English literature. There seems to be a widespread belief that studying English literature is of no practical value in the modern world, and that at any rate it doesn’t improve one’s employment prospects.


Therefore I have begun drafting a list of the many striking ways in which my degree has practically contributed to the work I now do.


1 While my students, in order to practise the Present Continuous, are doing a choral drill of the question “What is so-and-so doing?”, I think, “What is the late November doing…”


2 When my students want to know why on earth the phrase ‘on the grounds that’ means what it does, I fight to resist the temptation to tell them Who is the Ground of our Beseeching.


3 While my students, in order to practise the Past Simple, are asking each other, “What was Shakespeare’s job?”, I remember a lecture series called ‘Shakespeare’s Occupation’ and fail to find the relevant quotation on the Internet when I get home.


4 While my students, for the same reason as in the last point, are asking each other “Who was Elvis Presley?”, I think, “Elvis Presley, the King, the greatest rock singer ever, the man who was god to Pat Phipps and very nearly every other girl in Class 6…”


Actually, that last quotation is from a poem which did not feature anywhere on our syllabus, and all the others are connected with T.S. Eliot – which shows how much careful attention I paid to the wide range of topics and periods that were on the syllabus, and illustrates the well-known fact that there is a T.S. Eliot quote for every occasion.


'...the vacant into the vacant...'

‘…the vacant into the vacant…’


Four examples is probably enough to be going on with. I’ll add that I also learned to love punctuation, cow parsley and housework, and give up on the attempt to prove that my degree was useful.


Because usefulness is overrated, I think, as a system for working out the value of things. When I praise my kids for correctly circling the letter ‘r’ on the whiteboard, for example, or for making an excellent drawing of a relaxed ninja, I don’t stop to think that these early stages of their education are Useful because in future they may be able to strike a lucrative business deal, translate the plays of Chekhov, or by subtle and effective diplomacy succeed in narrowly averting World War Three. I just praise them because what they’re doing is good, and we enjoy it because it’s good.


Magnetic smiley-face whiteboard erasers. It doesn't get much better than magnetic smiley-face whiteboard erasers.

Magnetic smiley-face whiteboard erasers. It doesn’t get much better than magnetic smiley-face whiteboard erasers.


So there we are. High fives and smiley faces all round.


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One Response to The Dubious Good of an English Lit Degree, Part Two

  1. Show me a fool-proof correlation between those who graduated with a degree in, say, History and those who, ten years later, are unarguably researching, teaching, writing in their field and I will merely doubt your degree in English, or that a father with a degree in Mathematics hasn’t played fast and loose with the chi-squared test…

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