Throughout my high school career, discussions of Tora U'Mada always centered around the sciences. When I say discussions, of course, I mean arguments between students and teachers regarding the importance of learning secular subjects. Science was always trotted out as a sure-fire way to win an easy concession, or to illustrate a point. "I mean, like, it's really important, because, when you learn stuff like biology, you can recognize the Nifla'os of Hashem," or, if the student was more learned or innovative "You can use science to understand things in the Torah, or to help medicine, and things like that." And the teacher, of course, was forced to agree that studying science was a good thing, it was just a question of priorities. Or context, or point of view, or whatever we happened to be arguing about.
The point that was never raised was the importance of studying the soft sciences, or things like English. Of course, we had a class in the subject, and often very good teachers, but I don't ever recall somebody making the argument that studying English was important to properly understandng and appreciating the Torah. And of course, there are plenty of reasons for that- the vague whisperings about Bible Criticism that managed to insinuate themselves into our protected consciousnesses, the faith in the styles of criticism used by classical Meforshim and Rishonim, the general distaste with the idea that anything secular could add to Torah, 'hefach ba v'hefach ba, d'kula ba', and so forth.
The first author that I really came across to contradict these ideas was R' Aharon Lichtenstein, who had a Harvard degree in English literature and whose writings often focus on the usefulness of applying literary tactics to analyzing the Torah or the Gemara. But what really brought this home to me was taking my first hard-core English class in University this quarter.
The tactics that we have used in our English class- things like close readings, looking for themes or repetitions, unpacking metaphors, noticing ironies, focusing on ambiguities inherent in word choice, even inspecting punctuation- all can be applied to analyzing the Gemara or Tanach as well, but what I found even more interesting was in the questions raised by our analysis of different styles of criticism or analysis that we read. The class, entitled "Critical Perspectives" focuses not only on trying to unpack the texts ourselves, but also on analyzing various styles with which others have done so.
I was struck by the similarities between the styles and the questions raised, and debates and interests that seem to arise constantly in a Chumash or Gemara class. Thus far, we have touched on some of the following questions: how much can be read into ambiguities before you're just stretching; how important is it what the author may or may not have intended (less a question in Tanach, but surprisingly similar to the p'shat/midrash debate); how seriously should we take variant readings that the author chose to include (for us, Dickinson; for Torah, kri/k'tiv); how important it is to focus on the original meaning of the words versus studying the historical progression of interpretations; how legitimate it is to read a certain ideological concept into a text; reading out of a text versus reading into it; how the internet and hyper-text versions of text are changing the process of interpretation (I almost raised my hand to comment about the Bar Ilan CD before realizing that they'd have no clue what I was talking about); how much to attribute to the author's particular historical context; how to counter-read the text to analyze the author rather than his message; how important it may be to study original manuscripts; how broad of a context to view a work- the rest of the author's writings, the rest of the book, no context at all; how important is it that an author chose to include various things in proximity or in the same work.
There are probably more, but these are simply the ones that occur to me off-hand. I have not had a class go by without thinking of a meforash that might raise the same questions, and every day I leave with new perspectives on the answers, as well as practice at trying out different answers and different modes of taking apart poems or stories. It's a subject that we grapple with daily, and it seems a shame to ignore all the really useful things that English has to say.