Sunday 28 July 2019

Who Needs English?

I see that fewer pupils than ever are taking English as an A-Level subject, and I can't say I'm surprised – they won't be missing much. From what I know of current A-Level syllabuses, they seem to involve rather little reading of anything that could well be described as classic English literature, the Hard Stuff (in both senses). And as a degree subject, English seems to have even less to offer than it did when I was a student: sadly it has become a prime focus of the 'cultural Marxist' programme of all-round multicultural wokeness. Considering that the whole point of the humanities was to teach students to think, not to subscribe to received opinion, this is very sad.
  Things were bad enough at the turn of the Seventies when I emerged blinking from Cambridge with a degree and a (mercifully short-lived) inability to read anything with any enjoyment at all; indeed I was almost incapable of reading anything full stop. What I got out of what might loosely be called my studies had, for the most part, little to do with the prescribed course and far more to do with the various tangents I went off on along the way. To that extent it helped to widen my reading – but I'm not sure it actually helped me to read any better.
 The study of English at university level is a relatively recent phenomenon. As John Gross writes, in The Rise and Fall of the English Man of Letters: 'At the beginning of the nineteenth century, and for at least a generation after that, the idea of a university offering to teach "English" would have seemed ludicrous', and it was not until the 1890s that Oxford was prepared to entertain the idea of English as an academic subject. As it was, the eventual acceptance of English studies had much to do with recent advances in scientific philology and the growth of the adult education movement. These were phenomena of their time, and perhaps the study of English at university level might prove to be the transient product of a particular phase in education. At present the main reason to keep it going, I'd say, is not what's offered to the students, but rather the serious research and editing work (and indeed writing) that a university enables. Maybe, with time, a new rigour will be introduced to the study of the humanities and things will improve. Let's hope so.


  1. Alvin Kernan, who taught for many years at Yale, wrote a most interesting memoir of life as an English professor, In Plato's Cave. He mentions the great reservations that British academia had about admitting English literature as a course of study, and he quotes someone as saying that the English Department is the best place to find out what is bothering a university. (Maybe an American university.)

    When I was a student in the 1970s, my adviser named several professors in the department, and asked what they had in common. After a moment to think it over, I said that I supposed it was that they all valued the study of literature. At this remove, I can't think who the professors were or what their inclinations might have been.

    Unfortunately, those in the humanities reaching for rigor often come up with scientism instead.

  2. Thanks George – Kernan's point about the English dept being the place to find out what's bothering a university is interesting. Clearly an awful lot was bothering Cambridge in the years I was there (69 to 72), not least the students!
    I think the kind of rigour that would be useful to English studies would simply involve deeper and more extensive reading of canonical literature...

    1. While it is probably now possible to emerge from Cambridge Eng Lit with a much feted dissertation on Lady Gaga, my impression is that, even if you are idiotic enough to go in that kind of direction, because of the tutorial system you are forced to defend your ideas and therefore to think, after a fashion, at least once a week for three years. You can also pursue more sensible paths, avoiding the Visual Literature, Postcolonial, History of Lit Crit options and sticking with the slightly more Oxford history of lit approach, picking things like early modern drama, Chaucer, etc. And I still think Prac Crit is a wonderful thing - ditto the Tragedy paper. The suggestion - assuming it hasn't been removed in the last few years (actually with change so fast and radical in universities these days that might be quite an assumption) that all undergrads read the Bible before starting their English degrees also suggests that someone in the faculty has not completely lost touch with what they are supposed to be doing.