Why I Study English: Gabrielle Samra

As a graduate student enrolled in McGill’s M.A. in English program, I have to admit that my decision to continue in the study of the humanities was a rather unexpected one. Had you had asked me when I was little what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would probably have said an astronaut, a firefighter, or an emergency room surgeon (a rather eclectic mix, I know). I also dreamt of being a baker – an idea which was doomed to failure, since my cooking is all but inedible. But from engineer, to adoption lawyer, to CEO, I yearned to do it all. And yet, the one path I have continuously returned to is, perhaps, the one less travelled. My unwavering passion for the humanities has ensured that I remain on the literary road for years to come.

Like most scholars of English literature, I knew from a young age that I absolutely loved to read. Poring over books in the dead of night with a weak flashlight was my greatest pleasure, and to this day there is no gift I appreciate more than that of a good book. When I first entered elementary school, I soon found out that I also loved to write; and when I entered high school, I realized that I did not wish to leave the literary arts behind in favour of the sciences. I therefore endeavoured to study the two in tandem. My discovery of Liberal Arts in CEGEP, a program which upholds the study of grammar and rhetoric alongside arithmetic, logic, astronomy, music, and geometry, encouraged me to continue in my attempts to ‘study it all.’ And when I entered university, it seemed only logical to continue my pursuit of knowledge through McGill’s newly founded B.A. in Liberal Arts program.

Several years later, and you can still find me plumbing the depths of the humanities, while my love affair with literature remains firmly intact. And that is precisely what it has become: a love affair. One that I may have shied away from over the course of my academic career, but a love which has ultimately (and continuously) pulled me back in, due to the sheer wealth of understanding and experience it has to offer.

As both a tool and an art form, literature has profoundly shaped my understanding of the world around me. The literary arts lead one to question deeply ingrained truths and navigate the nuances of seemingly simple arguments. Critical analysis teaches us to not merely look, but to see; to not simply hear, but to listen. To consume and yet distil what we perceive of the world, rather than to gorge without consideration and so succumb to ignorance or apathy. Living in a time in which so often words have real power, the age-old adage has become increasingly true: the pen is mightier than the sword. The study of literature, and of the humanities as a whole, can teach us how to effectively wield that pen, and in turn, effect positive change on the world around us.

Of course, I still harbour a deep passion for other fields of academic inquiry; however, it is precisely due to my continued study of the humanities that I have been able to develop some of these interests at all. Without having taken a course on religions of the ancient Near East, I may never have realized my latent interest in archaeology. Had I not enrolled in an interdisciplinary seminar on medieval studies, I would never have discovered my unusual fondness for the science of alchemy. University is a time to explore both yourself as well as the world around you, and there is no more meaningful way of doing so than through the reading of any text you can lay your hands on.

My post-secondary degrees in Liberal Arts and English literature have by no means impeded the attainment of my aforementioned childhood dreams; in fact, they have only increased my chances of accomplishing any one (or perhaps all) of those goals – except perhaps the baking. The humanities are a diversified and versatile field which imparts numerous skills to its devotees. The ability to consciously stand in another person’s shoes, to creatively think outside the box, and to craft carefully constructed sentences are all invaluable talents in this day and age, and ones which can truly open doors in our competitive job market.

Just because the humanities may be what you love does not mean that they are not worth studying. There is no such thing as selfishness or irresponsibility when it comes to the acquisition of knowledge and experience. While I may not have thought that I would be standing where I am today, I would not have it any other way. I firmly believe that you should be free to study whatever it is that drives you; after all, if you love what you study, it will only push you to strive further and work harder.

And yet, more often than not, students are discouraged from pursuing what they love in the name of ‘practicality.’ In the modern world, many claim that love alone is not enough. But a world without love would be a bleak one indeed. To paraphrase the words of cultural aesthete (and infamous cannibal) Hannibal Lecter, literature “frees me to fully appreciate the beauty and art and horror of everything this world has to offer.” And that, I think, is a wondrous thing.

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