An Ode to English Students

I have faced a variety of reactions to my chosen degree, a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. I often witness a response of humorous condescension, faced with a mocking question, such as, “You realise you’ll probably end up working in Sainsbury’s right?” Perhaps, accompanied with a discrediting guffaw, I may be asked “What’s the point in doing that?” Unfortunately, I’d usually retort with a submissive chuckle, and a hollow comment about Shakespeare being great. However, after having begun my course, I now feel better equipped to answer these enquiries that all English undergraduates will undoubtedly face. Hence, I will now provide a couple of reasons, for those of you studying or hoping to take English Literature, with which you can form into a gleaming shield, a magnificent defence against all such doubting questions.

Naturally for an arts degree there is a whole lot of reading. For any bookworm, this might be enough justification in itself. In what other degree are you encouraged to lose yourself in the pages of a book every day? Reading, however, is not merely a tool of escapism. Keith Oatley, a professor in Toronto, has found how our brains actually have trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction. Meaning, similarly to how we learn and grow from our past experiences in the real world (an ideal world), the same happens by merely reading. Not only that, but when savvy page-lovers indulge in their favourite past time, they are essentially having an ‘exercise in human empathy’, and ‘may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration’ and ‘even love’. When considering this in light of a 2010 study, which found that for the last thirty years, our capacity for empathy has been decreasing, the importance of studying books continues to grow. Does not all injustice arise from a lack of human empathy?

Some clever guy once suggested “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel”, and throughout an English degree, you gain an understanding of how speeches can influence and inspire, gaining an insight into why particular speeches are so powerful. When we think of great speeches, Martin Luther King’s instantly comes to mind. We all know the mesmerising ‘I have a dream’ part of his speech, but after studying English, you may begin to appreciate other parts, especially his use of beautiful, evocative imagery. Using phrases like the ‘tranquilising drug of gradualism’, he argued how now was the ‘time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation, to the sunlit path of racial justice’. Though these words could hardly fail to move even the toughest of people, in an English degree, you get to go further and learn what makes these speeches tick, perhaps even handing you the ability to write them yourself. Speeches still move millions today, Emma Watson’s HeforShe and Ellen Page’s Time to Thrive speeches, potent examples. If by studying English you gain the slightest possibility of inspiring, informing or as a clever dude once said ‘make people feel’, it is surely not a useless degree.

So, although an English Literature degree may not help you build rockets, or solve medical enigmas, it endows you with gifts equally useful. It helps develop the much needed asset of empathy, and hands you an opportunity to develop yourself into someone that could inspire, and perhaps even change the world. Even if your inspiring words might have to be spoken, just for a while, whilst serving at a Sainsbury’s counter.

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