There are a number of reasons why English is the most important subject in a secondary school, reasons which also answer the above question. There are often arguments between practitioners about what is the purpose of the subject, but I would argue that there isn’t one as such. Rather, English has a wide variety of essential purposes, and the extent to which one becomes more prevalent than another in a classroom depends on the background and philosophy of the individual teacher. The purposes of English, in my opinion, are as follows:
1) To produce citizens who are capable of communicating successfully in contemporary society
2) To inculcate teenagers with ethics, values and morals that will ensure they become good citizens
3) To provide access to a body of knowledge and works that have shaped the contemporary culture that we live in and lets students experience other places and cultures
4) To produce readers who read for the sake of reading
The primary function or purpose of any secondary English department has to be to produce citizens who can communicate successfully in society in order that they can become happy and independent. In an information society that relies on the literacy of its citizens to interact with them, the more advanced the literacy skills of the citizen the greater freedom and power that citizen has. At a basic level this will ensure job opportunities are available, but at a higher level it allows citizens to make informed decisions about, for example, the ideas they are being sold by politicians, the products they are being sold by companies or the opinions they are being sold by newspapers and news programmes. Being able to read between the lines and infer meanings and motives behind verbal and written communications makes a citizen more powerful in the face of those who hold the real power, checking the creeping hegemony emanating from the political and financial classes. This is even more important today when year 7 students enter secondary school unable to read and write, probably as a result of hours spent gawping at the TV or playing on games consoles. With the rise of technology and digital media has come demise in levels of literacy (conspiracy theorists might argue that the multi-nationals who create these products actually have a hidden political agenda, but the reality is that illiteracy is an unfortunate by-product of the evolution of digital technology). All teachers have the task of trying to remedy this, but the English teachers are the experts and so the bigger part of the responsibility falls on us.
When all is said and done, the agenda of the state education system in Britain as a directed by the government is the inculcation of all with traditionally “middle class” values and ethics. The state wants its citizens to be fairly liberal-minded individuals who believe in democracy and the rule of law. If we produce citizens who don’t subscribe to these values, the entire machinery of the nation state becomes undermined. However, on a smaller level, English is also used to inculcate everyday morals and values. By getting students to empathise with the behaviour and actions of characters, we get them to imagine how they would deal with difficult decisions in their own lives. Reading allows us to think through difficult moral dilemmas that we may otherwise not have to face and provides us with the tools to deal with difficult moral and ethical decisions in our own lives.
Teachers from a literature background often believe that the third point is the main purpose of English. They talk of a “canon” of work that all students should experience, but this smacks of arrogance and implies hidden power structures in terms of who gets to decide on the “canon” and therefore influence the moral and ethical development of young minds. Always, this comes back to Shakespeare. In my eyes, there should be no canon. Teachers absolutely must provide access to great writing, but it should be great writing that they believe in and enjoy so that they can impart this enthusiasm to their students. This would then encourage students to find things that they enjoy and can be enthusiastic about. And this leads on to the fourth and final point: if students enjoy English and are enthused by teachers who are sharing texts that they are genuinely passionate about, they will in turn become passionate independent readers themselves. And readers are for more interesting people than non-readers, because they’ve visited more places, experienced more historical periods, met more characters and grappled with more problems and dilemmas than anybody who has spent an equal amount of time on an X-box.