Thoughts on a so-called education in the English subject

For six weeks, I attended a course entitled ‘Introduction to Literature Study’. I had high hopes for the class. Being an aspiring novelist, I felt that taking the class would somehow open my eyes to the literary form in such a way that would improve my writing. Unfortunately, in those six weeks, I learned very little.

I dropped the class largely because I was learning absolutely nothing. I learned the vocabulary used to describe the technical aspects of poetry. I learned about scansion, sibilance, the elegy, blank verse, and free verse, amongst other things. I learned that Sheridan’s The Rivals was a ‘comedy of manners’, a genre of plays that developed out of the city comedy.

But by and large, I did not learn anything valuable. I did not learn a single thing that allowed me to appreciate these works of literature. What on earth can I do with this newfound vocabulary but discuss the individual parts and clinical aspects of important literature? The curriculum seemed focussed on exposing students to a large swath of genres. But it failed to provide the students with any actual skills to study the literature. Perhaps it is because I go to an unfortunate college that I cannot receive a quality education. Perhaps it is the professor’s lack of pedagogical skill. Perhaps it is the administration’s fault for approving of her syllabus. Or perhaps it is because one cannot receive a so-called education in the English subject.

What I mean to say is that perhaps most students who are English majors can only benefit from such an education if they have inspired instructors. Merely having the vocabulary and a cursory understanding of the technical aspects of literature do not qualify one to truly study or appreciate it. But even with inspired instructors, I am starting to believe my intuition that while one may learn how to study literature through academic means, one cannot learn in a classroom how to truly better one’s writing.

What schooling can do is teach you, as I’ve oft repeated, technical skill. It can teach you the proper way to use semicolons and colons (I was surprised at how many students were completely inept when it came to such mundane details); it can teach you to dispassionately dissect a work and to examine it for its “true” meaning (whatever that means); it can show you how to recognize traditional forms and when an author is breaking from it. But what schooling cannot do is to show you how to craft a better novel.

As with many things, there are a variety of schools of thought when it comes to the touchy topic of talent. While some may hold the lofty ideal that one can accomplish anything if one works hard enough at it, my take on such things is much more grounded. With many things, you’ve either got it or you don’t. Talent, in my definition, is defined by that inherent quality: that one cannot learn it.

If one learns something, it is a skill. Talent is inborn, innate. There is an intangible quality to talent. It is mysterious, elusive, and hard to identify or define. It is a part of the human spirit, a part of what makes an individual special. Skills on the other hand are things that can be taught and learned. It is knowledge, and distinct from talent. Skill is technical, definable, and can be captured in textbooks.

And so perhaps it is simply my own misunderstandings of what my course in literature study aspired to do. I took it in hopes of learning something that could help improve my clarity of vision and thus improve my writing. But the truth is that what I truly wish to do—to take my novel to the next level—can only be achieved through self-study, through inspiration and introspection. That is why I no longer choose to pursue any formal education in literature, as it is a waste of time, money, and energy.

  • n

    Good decision IMO. I predict that you're probably significantly "better" than your current cohort. But, I wonder, how you would fare in a different school's literature class.

  • I'd be happy to struggle in another school's lit class: the level of education I get at mine is God awful. The work is unchallenging and for the most part irrelevant, uninteresting, uninspired, and useless. If not useless, then at least narrow enough in scope that it becomes useless to most students. The entire institution's staff's pedagogical skills leave much to be desired too. Though to be honest, I can't imagine that any literature program could help me write a better novel. There was this Wired interview with some Silicon Valley genius who wrote a bunch of modern epics. His stance on learning how to write (i.e. getting a Master's in creative writing or English or whatever) may help some folks, but it's largely unnecessary if one desires to write. Like I said, the only schooling helps you do is to deconstruct things, not to create them.