Its capacity to do so has been one of the most enduring justifications for placing English - as opposed to mere literacy - on the school curriculum.
The Newbolt report (1921), which established the centrality of English, did so partly because its authors believed the subject, through literature, "connotes the discovery of the world by the first and most direct way open to us, and the discovery of ourselves".
But long before Newbolt, the educational properties of the novel were being exploited either to push back the boundaries of conformity or keep young minds from corrupting influences. At the end of the 18th century, the novel was used to slug out ideological differences between the so-called Jacobin and anti-Jacobin camps. Jane Austen's novels appear poised at the balancing point of the debate.
The Gothic romance is great as long as you keep your feet on the ground when you read it - sense without sensibility is limiting. But most of her heroines, and some of her heroes, learn as they progress through their story.
The urge to educate through fiction continued with the Victorians, and is still evident in most of the class readers we place in front of pupils today. The blurb on the average book cover will often describe a quest for truth or a journey of discovery. The word "learn" is frequently used. But the experience of reading is about so much more than engagement with thorny issues. It is about pleasure. That is what made the recent debate about the number of hours students worked at university seem at one level old hat and at another slightly to miss the point.
What caused my science contemporaries so much bitterness as they trooped off daily to hours of lectures was less that I attended so few but more that I called lounging around with a book "working". If they read at all, that was leisure. This conundrum will always make English a popular subject but will perhaps keep it as a poor relation in battles over funding and the drive to make it economically viable by re-defining it as literacy.
But the principle that some things in education are worth doing for their own sake and that pleasure is an important part of that process is worth fighting for in a world bristling with targets and tests.
Bethan Marshall is senior lecturer in English education at King's College, University of London