I have a cousin who likes to argue that English classes (particularly at the university level) are worthless. As evidence, he submits the composition and literature courses he took – three different classes, at three different universities including West Point, all of which he claims taught him nothing at all. These classes were not even intellectual: academic discourse in English is apparently easy to mimic (although I find the real thing difficult enough, when done right). According to my cousin, English literature is interesting – and little more. It is certainly not an acceptable college major.
My cousin studies history, and so I like to remind him first of all that any claim levelled against a liberal arts major such as English redounds upon his major as well. At a deeper level, however, these claims trouble me deeply. Academics in particular demonstrate a peculiarly navel-gazing tendency when studying English literature. Honestly, does the world really need a novel about a physically-handicapped and dysfunctional family of circus performers? (Please note, this book actually exists in the K-State university library). My cousin claims that his instructors accepted the most ludicrous arguments with a straight face in his composition courses. Although the individual instructor may be blamed in part for both errors, the state of the English major is not reassuring.
At the same time, I would major in English again. I would encourage students to enroll in compsition courses or to take literature courses as electives, even at a state university. I would advise interested students to major in English, even without a secure job waiting at the end of graduation. And (most importantly), I would defend the consistent study of literature and writing in high schools today. Although partially corrupted as an academic major, the study of English holds the key – in my experience – to higher-level thinking and even to maturity and growth as a believer.
Think for a moment about what a book is. It is not just a stack of paper bound together with thicker paper. Nor is it (usually) a story that someone made up for the fun of it, or a story that someone made up with the deliberate intent to deceive someone. A book is instead a record (fictional or not) of the way that someone sees the world, a record of the truths and experiences prominent in the world – a record that we as believers would do well to know.
A favourite professor of mine told her classes that “all truth is God’s truth” – that everything correct originates from one who is himself Truth. Any truth discovered between the two covers of a book is a stepping-stone towards a deeper knowledge of the true God. Anything that is not true in a book has a reversed benefit: by comparing falsehood to the truth of Scripture, we recognize divine truth more clearly and grow in the knowledge of God. My first year in graduate school, I enjoyed Underworld by Don DeLillo. The author speculated that faith battens on and develops from signs that are essentially empty: words that have no tangible meaning, pictures of saints that do not correlate to actual saints. According to DeLillo, this essential emptiness makes faith beautiful and worthwhile – hope amidst a hopeless situation. According to the Scripture, faith does in fact develop from signs such as words; however, these words are filled with meaning. Christ is Himself the Word: both the sign and its meaning, the perfect communication of God in human form – a truth I realized out of studying (and exposing) the theological difficulties of a novel.
I see in my cousin’s experiences some of the problems plaguing the study of English, but I look at my own experiences and see a reason to solve this problems – not to throw in the towel. At the high school and college level both, studying English offers the believer a lens that focuses the truth of the gospel and aids in distinguishing between truth and untruth, mixed-up as they are in the contemporary world. Boiled down, English (to me at least) has the following benefits:
1) It exposes readers to multiple spiritual perspectives and worldviews and therefore prepares students to encounter these in the “real world” after high school and college.
2) It encourages students to appreciate alternative perspectives. Much as we are tempted, laughing at or mocking other worldviews is not an effective testimony. As students encounter unusual perspectives, they can also develop a mature, biblical response.
3) It encourages students to develop their own worldview in response to others. As I reached new biblical conclusions about faith subsequent to reading Underworld, students should respond to unbiblical positions with their own, more refined arguments.
4) It exercises under-used brain muscles and introduces students to new activities. Amidst the Internet, video games, and the increasing demands of mathematical subjects, students have less time for reading than ever before. Although one course in literature may not make a lifelong reading convert out of a student, it can at least introduce them to the pleasures of reading.
5) It demands professional language in writing and speaking. Many writers like to begin sentences with the word “which”, as in The dog chased his tail. Which made the girl laugh. More writers forget how to use commas in writing, and nobody knows how to use a colon mark correctly. As believers, however, professional language usage is crucial in our testimony to the world – and writing and literature classes can help improve that.
Are there any items that you would add to the list?
I provide this list as an ideal: not what English classes do, but what they can do if taught correctly. I also provide this list as a set of my own goals as an English teacher. My time in Prague is not intended as a unique overseas experience (I could get that by going to China), nor is it purely an educational experience. It is an opportunity to share Christ with my students by teaching English – a subject that I believe uniquely suited for the opportunity. Please help me to achieve this goal: I appreciate your prayer & financial support, as God leads.