Why Study English?

English classroom

"Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final?"

So said Virginia Woolf in her marvelous essay, "How Should One Read a Book?" 


Do you love reading? If so, read on.

In the Duke English Department you will encounter a range of learned and passionate professors who will introduce you to the transformative voices of great literatures written in English from the British Isles, America, and the many countries of the world in which English has been used. We are currently among the top ranked English departments in the United States.

The discipline of English in universities is historically relatively recent, but it has its intellectual roots in much more ancient paths and methods. The university discipline of English is a modern offshoot of forms of rhetoric honed in the classical age and revived in Humanist learning, whose principal aim is argument and expression, and in its earlier Humanist sense, initiation into a life worth living well.

In English classes you learn to read, to think, and to write, those activities being quite complexly interconnected in ways you will discover. To explore these literatures in this department then is to pay the most precise and rigorous attention to forms of address: who is saying what to whom? Why just this word, right there, right now?

Studying in English classes opens you up to your agency – that is, your capacities and power – in the humanly distinctive medium of language. To explore the indispensible medium of expression, of representation, and communication in the hands of its exemplary users, whether these are poets, essayists, or novelists, is life-enhancing. It is also no surprise that the skills of English majors are in high demand in so many professions and walks of life from law to business, and even medicine. Professional schools and businesses have long acknowledged the great benefits of rigorous training in English. 

The literatures you will encounter in our department are arts of attention. Their authors have attended to the world to illumine it for us.

They are also incitements to judgment because we respond to literary works strongly, in ways that are deeply personal (and therefore the source of self-knowledge) but not for that reason subjective (to love a text is also to want, need, and demand that you love this work too!) So in English classes we explore aesthetic and ethical judgments (because our responsiveness to works also engages our responsibility). And we learn to become progressively more articulate as we deepen our informed responses to writing, and learn to write our selves in creative and critical forms.