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Nuala McCann: English literature is about history, psychology, philosophy, languages, sociology, theology... it's about what makes us human

English literature is about history, psychology, philosophy, languages, sociology, theology... it's about what makes us human

To misquote Bill Shankly, literature is not about life or death - it's much more important than that

THEY say the future is STEM - science and technology and maths are where it's at.

English literature degrees are where it's not at if you read newspaper stories about the decline and fall of the English degree.

Students don't want to read Eng Lit at university any more.

There has been a slump in applications.

By the January application deadline this year, 7,045 18-year-olds had applied to study English at university, a drop of more than a third from 10,740 in 2012, according to Ucas data.

Experts say fewer students are taking English at A-level. It's computer science, psychology and maths.

We are two arts students who produced a software engineer. We're still scratching our heads and wondering where he came from.

When he started his first job - working from home - there was a call to the door from his boss, welcoming him to the company with a new back pack, beanie hat, drinking cup and a box of fresh cupcakes.

He got a spanking new Mac from the company - no little Amstrad PCW 9512; how far has the world moved on?

Honestly - is there a cocktail called Silicon Valley? Because there sure ought to be.

But I wouldn't swap my university years and my English Lit degree for a seat at the table with Bill Gates or a ride in a rocket with a billionaire.

Yes, for jobs and opportunities, then STEM is very much where it's at.

But humanities are what make us human.

It's no easy ride.

Think of all those wannabe journos and magazine writers with my kind of degree, offering their talents for free just to get a foot in the door and resigning themselves to life in the garret or trotting off with the skinny latte and Americano double shot to keep the boss happy.

But someone needs to stand up for literature as the beating heart of what makes us who we are.

My mother tried to persuade me that the law offer might have been a better option... there was plenty of crime knocking about Belfast in the late 1970s.

But I spent an afternoon with a solicitor and needed two matchsticks to keep my eyelids open.

And what joy was to be had in four whole years of Pip and the kind convict Magwitch, of Macbeth and Patrick Kavanagh.

Looking back, it was wasted on most of us 19-year-olds.

We read a novel, a play and a poet each week.

We read Paradise Lost with an old, rather eccentric prof who wore tweed suits and called it "Paradise Lawst" but he was an easy marker - grand then.

And we read and debated and argued and read more. We drank wine at our tutorials and learned to defend our views. It was an education in the true sense of the word.

Looking back, I wish I'd been old enough to appreciate what we had.

I now know that poetry is soul food, for those who have lived, loved, lost.

Shakespeare's tragedies with all that jealousy, vaulting ambition or pride were lost on the teenage me.

Now I'm backing novelists like Mark Haddon - author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - who have made a passionate plea to universities not to drop their English degrees.

Haddon says English is about history, psychology, philosophy, languages, sociology, theology... it's about what makes us human.

Writer Patrick Gale says English fosters our understanding of one another.

If more members of the cabinet had an English literature degree, he argues, then they wouldn't be cutting our overseas aid budget or radically undervaluing the importance of investing in children.

To misquote Bill Shankly, literature is not about life or death - it's much more important than that

One of my favourite films is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button about a man whose life is lived the other way round.

He is born old and grows younger. He has a perfect time with the woman he loves then she ages as he turns rebellious teenager.

So maybe university and the study of literature is wasted on the young.

Like Benjamin Button, perhaps we should all live our lives backwards - born old, hit retirement, work and go and read English and revel in the stories of Pip and Miss Havisham, Jane Eyre, Orlando.

Then regress to babyhood and end life with an orgasmic bang. Now that would be poetry.

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