Let’s Stop Asking Why We Should Study Literature, and Start Asking What English Class Is For

I’ve been wondering a lot lately what the hell I’m doing.

I treat my English class like my own personal rumpus room. What do I think is fun or interesting? What do I think it’s important for my students to know? What is in the news that I feel like talking about that day?

It makes for a lot of great class discussions. One of my students from last term, walking past my classroom, said to me between classes, “Monsieur, I don’t know what you were teaching before, but it looked awesome.”

What was I teaching? My students’ novels were sitting closed on the desk the entire time. The first day of the new unit and we didn’t once open the book.

A lot of teachers ask students the question, “Why study literature?” It’s a cheap way to demand engagement from students early in a course, when you don’t know them well, and when you want to set the expectation that the things you’re studying are BIG AND IMPORTANT. Shakespeare, man, he’s the Bard. He’s the nucleus that English lit studies rotate around. He’s important, but why?

Answers are usually related to the human condition, or general learning, or art, or something. Things internal to literature. Students don’t believe that shit, and teachers are frequently hard-pressed to believe it too. English teachers like reading. They find criticism satisfying. Many students don’t, and that’s okay.

This question (Why study literature? Why bother, even, is a way I’ve seen it asked) does a disservice to both literature and to the class. Literature is more valuable than that, and English classes are more valuable than that.

What’s literature about? EVERYTHING.

So talk about everything.

Who takes English classes in Canadian high schools? EVERYONE.

So speak to everyone’s experience.

English class is the only universal mandatory in grades 7-12. You get kids at the turn of puberty, as they are transforming from rampant little ids into the people they will be, with some tweaks, for the rest of their lives. English classes, for these kids (and when I say “these kids,” I mean all of them) are a force for MASSIVE change, if critical thinking is taught, not just within the context of literature but across culture and current events and issues and philosophy. And when English class can be used as a tool for a massive critical and civic seachange for the entirety of the student population, for six years worth of classes, that’s a lot of change from just one subject.

I had to look back and really think about what I was teaching to answer my former student’s question. My English class today was on the idea of privacy, surveillance culture, big data, Ed Snowden and the NSA, moral vs. ethical thought, and the roots of socialism.

We start 1984 tomorrow, after looking at the evolution of socialism to communism and Marxism through Leninism and Stalinism.

English class sucks when it’s just about English. English class needs to be a comprehensive, whole-life education, because it’s the only place in which we have access to everyone in our school system.

Not everyone needs an English major. Everyone needs the skills to navigate their lives. English class can teach the skills needed to navigate our lives.

Everyone needs their English class. All we need now is for English teachers to universally acknowledge their responsibility to their students — their responsibility to everyone.


Paddle your own canoe, folks.



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3 Thoughts to “Let’s Stop Asking Why We Should Study Literature, and Start Asking What English Class Is For”

  1. This is beautiful. I made an inspirational video for teachers for part of a school reform project that tries to stress exactly this point. That school is about so many of the intangibles – the inspiration, the connections, the surprises. As a former English teacher myself, I completely respect what you are doing. This project is about the giant clusterf— of American education, but if you care to view it, enjoy.

  2. I took an American History course in college that was taught by a guy who had an English Lit background. He taught the entire class using literature instead of history books. We studied America through its expats (e.g., Hemingway), its wayfarers (e.g., Kerouac), its depressed romantics (e.g. Chopin), and its journalistic realists (e.g., Sinclair) to name a few. We also looked at America as art movements, studying changes in architecture and furniture design as reflections of society. It was probably the best and most interesting history class I’ve ever taken.

  3. Man, I loved my English teachers in high school but I was a creative-writing-loving book worm so I would have loved them regardless. But your classes sound like they would have really challenged me into becoming a better human being, not just a better ‘reader’. Nicely done.

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