Writing is an outlet, a cleansing, a compulsion, a joy and a burden; studying and exploring literature only scratches the surface of its myriad forms. The more you read, the more you become aware of how much is left to read, in a way that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And I would defend the study of literature – or any art – to an extreme.
I marched on 20th November 2010. Not only because the prospect of future generations bankrupting themselves for the privilege of Higher Education weighed on me like it was my own burden; not only because I was utterly disheartened by the dearth in passion and love of learning in many of my fellow students; not only to celebrate my dearly held right to free speech and self-expression. I also marched because my government, with no mandate, was telling me that the arts didn’t matter, weren’t a priority, cost too much, and were no longer a luxury the country could support. I was angry then, and I am angry still.
The Browne Review suggested that the government should tear the floor from under the arts and humanities, stripping their funding and feeding ‘priority’ subjects – science, engineering, medicine, languages – to bring HE institutions in line with the age of austerity. Lovers of the arts are no strangers to accountants pointing the finger when funding is short, dismissing thousands of years of human ingenuity with the cry, “But what is it for?” To apply the model of utilitarianism to art, literature, drama or any other ‘non-priority’ subject rejects the very reason for their existence.
I said I would defend the arts to an extreme, and this is because I believe they are indispensable. Medicine, engineering and the sciences serve an essential, and easily identifiable, purpose; without them we would have nothing to base our civilization on. The arts, however, build on and embellish that base, make it beautiful, add value to it, and make us question everything from the nature of love to the nature of reality. Human beings do not just need to survive; we need a reason to survive, and a way of expressing our joy at being here at all. I cannot enumerate the instances of clarity and delight I have had in reading great writers’ work, hearing the perfect chord, discovering new forms of art I didn’t know existed. These moments are not unique to me. I study literature because I have a desire, a hunger, to learn why words on a page can inflame, how they can change the world, and to join the greatest among us in questioning everything.
The beauty of the arts is that you do not need a single qualification to be scintillated by what they have to offer. At the same time, they attract brilliant minds who dedicate their lives to illuminating and expanding the horizons of their study. Times ahead are hard, but the arts will survive in universities, because we love and need them. Eventually, even Lord Browne might realise it.