‘Studying English literature remains the gold standard in education’

Posted: 7th July 2023

Thomas Eyre-Maunsell makes the case for studying English and other literature as national A-level entries plunge.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

There are plenty of apocalyptic articles on the future of A-level English literature. Literature has fallen out of the top ten A-level subjects studied in this country. Entries have fallen by more than a third in the past decade, and this has carried through to university applications too.

It’s boom for maths and psychology. Is it bust for English? It’s a great retort from the inebriated Mike Campbell in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It encourages us to guard against complacency. But let me remind you why the study of literature remains the gold standard in education.

The study of literature opens doors to other worlds. Here we are, in a world where we are constantly subjected to partisan comments, reductive political statements, provocative tweets.

“Without literature, we are stuck in an echo-chamber.”

An exclamatory age (“Lock her up!”, and now “Lock him up!”). It is particularly important for teenagers, therefore, in their burgeoning lives, to hear different voices, skip to different eras, sense other lives and other issues. In essence, see the prism of life.

Without it, we are stuck in an echo-chamber, where the same tired beliefs and opinions reinforce themselves. You can imagine how easily that can happen at school. In a place (school), and at an age (teens), where “fitting in” is often perceived as paramount, knowledge and insights into human experience are exceptionally important.

If we need to understand others before we can truly understand ourselves, if we want to break away from homogeneity of thought and deed, we can use the study of literature to unlock these doors.

Humans love stories. Storytelling is an ancient way to connect, to propagate cultural traditions, to entertain. At Rugby we savour not just unpicking stories, but spinning them too. We take creativity so seriously we have a head of creative writing. We give students access to creative writing courses run by the Arvon Foundation, in inspirational locations such as Ted Hughes’ former home. We have just appointed our third Poet in Residence, Anthony Anaxagorou, winner of this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize for his poetry collection, Heritage Aesthetics.

“Storytelling is an ancient way to connect, to propagate cultural traditions.”

In recent years the students have been lucky to hear from Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and John Agard, to name but three. Those were brief visits. The Poet in Residence is a regular presence, with time to get to know our brightest and best, with space to inspire Rugby students but also those from local schools. Working with these brilliant figures sparks our students’ imaginations, and empowers them to develop their own voices.

And how, you may ask, does this link to A-level Literature? It is one of the most popular subjects at Rugby School. We have 82 students in the sixth form studying A-level literature, and last year 46 per cent of them achieved A*s. With the recent introduction of the International Baccalaureate (IB) there are now more than 130 students of  literature. It is such a thriving subject here because students relish the chance to critically engage with a diverse set of texts, and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with other bright young minds.

It is a subject clearly valued by the school, and our literature teachers are highly rated by the students. We prepare the ground from the day the students arrive at the school, with novel-writing competitions, theatre trips and access to fantastic writers.

“Skills developed through literature are in demand – they occupy an area that AI has yet to replicate.”

Fantastic writers, predictably, have been jumping to the defence of English Literature as a discipline at university. With its numbers in decline, the likes of Zadie Smith have been reminding everyone why spending your time as a student thinking, questioning, challenging, evaluating, listening, re-evaluating, overturning, connecting, reflecting and writing, is time well spent.

This is a precious list of participles. These are skills that are in demand, not least because they occupy an area of ambiguity that Artificial Intelligence has yet to successfully replicate. The liminal space is a rich one in literary analysis: meaning is hard to firmly fasten.

The Rugby English department is a haven for those on the threshold of two worlds (interdisciplinarians) too. My literary colleagues also hold degrees in foreign languages, law and medieval musicology; their different voices enrich the debate.  The interdisciplinary, new shoots from old branches, is perhaps the future for the study of Literature at university.

But what of schools? Is the sun setting on the study of literature in secondary education? You don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to know the sun also rises.

Source: ‘Studying English literature remains the gold standard in education’ | School Management Plus: School & education news worldwide

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