Category Archives: Literature

GIVE A HOOT, READ A BOOK: ARTS AND HUMANITIES, EMPATHY AND THINKING AGAINST VALUE by Rose Lock

Last summer, shortly after graduating with a degree in English, I was mocked for devoting three years to studying this subject. The person who smirked at my choice of study was an academic himself – a professor of genetics. He had scoffed:

“Pfft. Story-telling is all well and good, but, I mean… really?”

My reply at the time was a combined splutter of bemusement and bits of sandwich, topped off with a pained, high-pitched yelp (probably an expression of the growing, post-graduate job market related fear that was enveloping many of my friends and I).

I would like to respond a bit more coherently now.

It was not the first time I had felt the need to ‘defend’ my degree. Judging by the surprisingly not so unusual ‘What are you going to do with that then?’  type remarks, anyone would have thought I had carelessly got myself into debt for studying something as frivolous as tiddlywinks. And last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan actively discouraged teenagers from studying arts and humanities subjects, by suggesting that this choice could ‘hold them back’ forever.

Largely thanks to Morgan’s government tripling university tuition fees, it is no wonder that we have been forced into debating the ‘value’ of studying subjects such as literature, history and philosophy at degree level. The arts and humanities sit uncomfortably on a shelf in the higher education supermarket, awkwardly trying to distract attention away from their hefty price tag that is so at odds with what they represent. As Dead Beats Literary Blog put it:

The substance of a thing’s ‘value’ lies within the context in which the object of concern is assessed. The value of Arts and the Humanities has been assessed under economic and pragmatic terms which are distinct from, and incompatible with, the formative and experiential benefits that are inherent to the subject field.

It seems nonsensical to view the study of literature in terms of monetary value. Back in 2012, the University of Sheffield held an event entitled Against Value in the Arts and Humanities in which the following argument was made:

… the task of the arts and humanities, both in their creative and educative aspects, is to contest, to challenge, to question, to undermine, to satirise, to offend, to violate, to deconstruct, to degenerate, to critique, to undo, or to suspend dominant and dominating assumptions of value. The purpose of the arts and humanities, the purpose of the university, is to think against value.

It is no surprise then, that Morgan and the rest of the political elite want to discourage this kind of deconstructive thinking. One of my lecturers once described feminism (which incidentally, I would not have understood so well had I not taken an arts and humanities degree) as ‘never blindly accepting the prevailing terms for anything.’  Another defined literature as a deeply political subject – but one that is far more exciting that studying politics – because it allows one to engage with notions of authorship and ownership, and to critically question pillars of tradition and power. The existence of the literary canon, for example, is a reminder that ‘value’ is not innate but is instead constructed.

I could attempt to begin listing the ways that studying literature aids personal development: encouraging moral and political agency, and improving transferable skills in ways of thinking rigorously and analytically. But perhaps the most essential and beneficial life skill that is enhanced by reading literary fiction is the ability to empathise. Science, thankfully, has confirmed this, and Morgan and the rest of the cabinet would do well to take note, preferably before they introduce rash policies such as the book ban on prisoners, or make sweeping statements claiming that only the STEM subjects are ‘useful’, and thus disregarding all other subjects as unimportant.

Granted, Morgan’s definition of ‘useful’ is probably quite different to mine. I would say that nurturing the empathic potential in young people through the study of arts and humanities, and through encouraging reading more generally, is more than ‘useful’  – it is vital. I would agree with Roman Krznaric – writer, cultural thinker and founder of the Empathy Library, who views empathy not as a ‘fluffy’ concept, but as a radical force for social change, creativity and innovation. The act of stepping inside someone else’s head and beginning to understand how their experiences and circumstances inform their perspective – this is made possible by art, film and literature in particular. This imaginative leap nurtures an interest in others, helps to break down assumptions and harmful stereotypes, and can even be a first step towards taking positive action. Turns out Krusty the Clown’s slogan for his literacy campaign, ‘Give a hoot, read a book!’ ain’t as silly as it sounds.

Aside from Morgan’s suggestion that arts and humanities subjects no longer have any ‘use’ based on her own limited, economic-driven terms being complete nonsense – the UK’s creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year to our economy – by encouraging students to write off arts subjects at the age of 15 so as not to limit their career prospects, she reinforces an old inequality: that the arts are only available to the wealthy. If you’re concerned about getting a job, better not risk getting into all that debt for a degree that might not guarantee you a stable career or high income. Rather than breaking down barriers that prevent young people from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing careers in the arts, such as crippling student debt or unpaid internships, the education secretary would rather they just didn’t bother trying in the first place. It is for this reason that we desperately need charities like Arts Emergency, an organisation that recognises the importance of equal social access to the arts, and the crucial benefits that the arts and humanities bring to society.

Particularly now, it is essential that empathy, moral agency and experimental thought are encouraged through a good arts education, rather than schools and universities producing depoliticised students, and what the writer Henry A Giroux calls a “technically trained docility”. Giroux has spoken out about the relationship between the context of neoliberalism and a perceived breakdown in forms of social obligation. Within the neoliberal project, capital rules, and ‘compassion and concern for others are viewed as a weakness.’  Recent growing support for UKIP and the rise of extremist parties elsewhere in Europe amidst austerity can be interpreted as a form of collective empathic collapse. Our media continues to tar people with unfair labels, stirring up prejudice within communities.

The arts and humanities promote a just society. Nicky Morgan needs to realise this, and prove that she does give a hoot.

readabook

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Top Five Favourite Feminist Books by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

This was a tricky list to narrow down, but here are my five favourite Feminist (or what I’d define as Feminist) books that I’d strongly recommend to anyone interested in reading around the subject.

1) WETLANDS by Charlotte Roche.

Reading Wetlands isn’t always a pleasant experience. It follows the mind and thoughts of 18-year-old Helen Memel as she lies in a hospital bed due to a nasty intimate shaving accident. Helen describes in graphic detail previously taboo subjects such as anal intercourse, hairy armpits, period blood and sexual pleasure. Julia Kristeva’s theory of Abjection states that the abject is an experience situated outside the concept of an object and the concept of the subject. Facing the abject can often be traumatic or uncomfortable, for example, coming face to face with a corpse, blood or vomit. This repulsion a natural response from being a subject, or a person. Roche’s descriptions, therefore, are not always comfortable or enjoyable but they do serve a strong purpose. Women, undeniably, deal with a huge pressure to be clean or ‘pure’, constantly maintaining their bodies, hair and faces in order to be seen as the purer sex. Yet, nothing is spoken of how it feels to actually live in these bodies, to deal with these everyday bodily functions such as blood and vomit. The smokescreen of purity and cleanliness in disseminated. However, despite the furore over the brutal depiction of these subjects, the protagonist remains like-able and vulnerable. She tries desperately hard to get her separated parents back together, showing a tender emotional side.  The book is graphic, yes, but most importantly breaks down taboos whilst remaining funny and touching.

2) THE WOMEN’S ROOM by Marilyn French

Fay Weldon said that The Women’s Room is “the kind of book that changes lives” and I would completely agree with that statement. The novel is set in 1950s America and follows the life of Mira Ward as a young and ‘conventional’ young woman in a traditional marriage stuck in the  sexist throes of suburbia. After years of unhappy marriage, her husband eventually files for divorce leaving Mira to gradually discover her own intelligence, Feminism and true love based on equality.  The novel describes the friendships between women in clear and wonderful detail whilst also dealing with more difficult subjects such as rape and violent protests.

3) HOW TO BE A WOMAN by Caitlin Moran

Feminism can be FUNNY. Big gasps. Women can be FUNNY. Shock face. How To Be A Woman is like having a chat with your best friend. You know the type that goes on until three in the morning over a bottle of wine, where you discuss adolescence, bras, pubic hair and celebrities. Feminism doesn’t have to be stuffy or academic but can discuss contemporary issues and daily experiences in an accessible and hilarious way. Nice one, Caitlin.

4) THE EQUALITY ILLUSION; THE TRUTH ABOUT MEN AND WOMEN TODAY by Kat Banyard

UK Feminista’s Kat Banyard reminds the world that there is still a long way to go before men and women are truly equal. Banyard starts by discusses appearance and eating disorders, the pressure young girls feel to wear make-up and been seen as attractive and fit to face the world. She also mentions the fact that the majority of pornography is heterosexual and degrading to women, creating a pressure during sexual relationships. Women are still regarded as bodies, or objects, rather than real people which leads to severe insecurity, sexual harrassment, domestic violence and abuse. Banyard also discusses other issues such as the fact that women are still a minority on Parliament and business companies in the first world.  This book is engaging and extremely easy to read and digest. Although many people today may not see the importance of Feminism as men and women are supposedly equal, Banyard reminds us that it is simply not so. All Feminism strives for is completely gender equality and the eradication of discrimination based on gender. Even though many young women I know wouldn’t necessarily call themselves Feminist, I wonder if after reading this book and discovering the stereotypes and expectations that affect both men and women, they would change their minds and join the fight for complete equality? I sure hope so.

5) INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

In 2005, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was named by Time magazine as one of the 1oo most influencial people in the world. Her memoir Infidel describes her youth in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya whilst going on to speak about her flight to the Netherlands and her eventual election to Parliament.  It deals with her own personal complexes of the Islam religion and her disgust at the common practice of female circumcision. The murder of Theo van Gogh is also mentioned, with whom she produced the short film Submission, which portrays four fictional characters wearing a a see-through veil, describing the abuse of Muslim women.

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