This post is inspired by two articles, one in The Guardian and one in The Critic, which discuss the possible end of the degrees in English language and Literature in England if things continue downhill, as they seem to be going. Before I start discussing in more detail the situation and the arguments, allow me to quote a teacher I had in my second year at university (the sophomore year, as the Americans say). Raquel Sotelo asked us, poor innocent babes, ‘so, what’s the use of the degree you have chosen?’ We expected a long speech about the wonders of reading for a degree in ‘filología’ (the Spanish concept that encompasses language and Literature) but instead she bluntly said that the degree was ‘no use’. It was, she added, basically a time for personal education. This is a very valid answer to me. The problem, as you will see, is that education –whether personal or collective– has no room in capitalism and this is the key question. Capitalism has room for the likes of Leo Messi and Kim Kardashian, but not for English graduates and teachers. On the other hand, as long as they make a fortune for their (for me) totally superfluous activities, I feel entitled to being paid comparatively just peanuts for my own superfluous activities. At least mine are educational.
“The Guardian View on English Language and Literature: More, Please” is an editorial piece subtitled “We must take care not to devalue a subject that helps us build a more rounded and healthier body politic”. The text reacts to the announcement by the admissions service UCAS that “a third fewer 18-year-olds have applied to study [English] at university this year than in 2012”. As a result, English academics are being fired, whereas one university –Cumbria– has altogether dismantled its English Department. The Guardian blames the Tory Government for this state of affairs, highlighting Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s description of Humanities degrees as “dead-end courses”. The editorial also stresses the erosion of English at primary and secondary school levels, with a loss of emphasis on reading and the removal of popular Literature courses. “A rise in rote learning has been noted, along with a decline in interest in pupils’ own responses to great literature”, the editors write. There is a clear correlation between the lower number of university applications and the “slump in the number taking English A-levels”. Add to this the cost of university fees and the Government’s relentless “championing of science degrees” and the picture is complete. The conclusion is that the study of Literature in higher education, which has never been utilitarian in spirit but rather lofty in its aims, is collapsing. Whereas in Victorian times it was justified on the grounds of national unity, moral integrity and intellectual commitment, now it is justified as a means to acquire “the skills of critical analysis, lateral thinking and flexibility” that increase empathy and further the capacity for criticism. Besides, The Guardian concludes, “literature provides deep, complex, lifelong pleasure, which too often gets forgotten as a worthy end in itself”.
The point of view of Alexander Larman in The Critic is quite different. His article “The Death of the English Literature Degree” is subtitled “Thanks to ‘critical theory’, the study of English literature has become overrun with boring academics who hardly inspire the next generation”. Larman devotes part of his article to bemoaning the loss of Medieval Literature in Leicester University’s curriculum and the University of Cumbria’s scrapping of the English Department as “especially egregious”. For Larman, as for The Guardian, it is clear that “Our brave new government has little time for book-based degrees”. He blames the low popularity of English degrees, too, on the burden that student loans place on the job expectations of new graduates. Gavin Williamson’s inelegant remark about “dead-end courses” was apparently accompanied by the phrase “which give [students] nothing but a mountain of debt”.
Surprisingly, though, Larman does not continue with an examination of the steep rise in university fees that has made student loans so appallingly onerous, but with a frontal attack on critical theory. Apparently he was a victim of its introduction in British universities, though he mentions the 1960s as the onset of the new trends, I assume that a couple of decades before he was an undergraduate. “Long before any ideas of ‘woke’ had entered the mainstream,” Larman notes, “university English departments had decided what was, and wasn’t, acceptable. Woe betide you, student or tutor alike, if you deviated from the new orthodoxy”. More to the point than this boutade, Larman observes that “Students are angry, politicised and very much aware of their new status as consumers, rather than young men and women who are attending universities to learn”. Their anger fuels the culture wars waged on campuses all over the Anglophone world, with Literature acting as a mere weapon in the midst of a flurry of “doctrinal absurdities”. Almost logically, Larman concludes that if English degrees are “on the way out (…) I cannot say that I am particularly sad about their demise”. English Literature needs to be “treated seriously once more, and given the credibility that it deserves” to prevent “this slow slide into apathy and irrelevance”.
Now, suppose I was an English mother with a talented child who very much wanted to follow a career in English Literature (if I was a Scottish mother, things would be very different as BA degrees are still free for Scottish students, meaning that the 1,820 GBP fee is usually covered by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS)). Would I encourage my child to take that path, or would I prod them instead towards a degree in ethics and robotics (in my view, the most promising one within the Humanities)? The answer is that I would not encourage my child’s choice of a degree in English unless said child showed an inflexible determination and superb academic skills that might give them a chance at an academic career (and even so, I would hesitate). I believe that individuals should follow their vocations (as I did) and I would not curtail any young person’s vocation. However, in the case of young persons who are not specifically inclined, I would be much more pragmatic and consider the outcome of the investment on a degree, which is major whether for a fee-paying family or for a student saddled with a loan. I happen to agree with the British Government that we need more STEM graduates because as climate change progresses we need all the scientific talent we have at hand to find urgent solutions. This does not mean we don’t need graduates in English to provide us with critical tools, save the Literature of the past and bring on the Literature of the future. I just mean that we need fewer, and that the reduction in applications and in jobs is possibly part of a correction, not the end of the degrees in language and Literature. In fact, I would be much more restrictive and only admit academically outstanding students that could then reinforce the presence of language and Literature at primary and secondary school levels, for general increased literacy.
On the other hand, neither The Guardian nor The Critic mention the elephant in the classroom: fewer and fewer young people read, and those who do read are not necessarily interested in the books that constitute the core of the canon but mainly in YA. As I have explained again and again, although I have nothing against YA as such its misuse as a genre that invites young readers to eschew the classics (you know?, the books supposedly for adults) is catastrophic. I would invite these two publications to run a survey and ask applicants to English degrees what they have read so far. Sorry to sound so classically-minded but, whether you agree or not with their values, a person is only ready to do well at an English degree after having read canonical English Literature, apart from the books personally enjoyed. To debunk (or renew) the canon you need to a have a good knowledge of it and we just don’t need English graduates who appreciate YA but have never read Austen or Dickens, or any other major author you can think of, of any identity.
And this brings me to the reasons why degrees in Literature should be maintained. You will see that this is quite difficult to justify. The acquisition of critical skills, a capacity to write well in an argumentative style, and an ability to express yourself in accurate English is not necessarily acquired from reading Literature. In fact, we don’t teach students that (or mainly that), but to produce academic prose and oral presentations regardless of whether they have read the Literature we study. Perhaps advanced literacy skills could be better acquired with another type of degree, more open to the reality of the transmedia world today and less focused on Literature. And the other way round: some aspects of Literature might have to become a matter for MA degrees (for instance, Medieval Literature), whereas other genres connected with the present should have more room in Literature degrees (doesn’t non-fiction help acquire advanced literacy just as well as reading novels?). The idea that the degrees should be maintained to appreciate the aesthetic values of Literature, which is what Larman is defending, makes vey little sense to me because a) few current writers really care about style, b) few readers truly appreciate style and much less so if it is found in texts of the past, c) it has been shown that style does depend on cultural, social and political conditionings.
This leads me to another major preoccupation. I have been thinking of writing a post freely expressing my position about the growing wokeism in the Humanities degrees of Anglophone universities but I have desisted. I am guilty of using critical theory and identity politics in my teaching and research, but I am growing very wary of the minefield that academic work has become. I read on a daily basis news about academics or students being cancelled for uttering this or that opinion, and I am growing very much scared of saying what I really think about many matters. If debate becomes doctrine, then debate dies, and I think that debate is dying right now. We can always discuss in which ways the texts of the past carry negative values that are no longer part of our current repertoire, but if we come to the point when –as it has happened recently in British universities– some authors, and even spelling itself, are seen as part of patriarchal oppression and, hence, rejected, we are going nowhere except to the land of the ignorant. Please note that I am speaking as a convinced feminist whose main task if to unmask patriarchy. I do not like witch-hunts, I do not like intransigence, I do not like dogmatism and if English degrees are going to go that way, then I’ll keep a low profile until I retire and stop practicing Gender Studies.
Perhaps the time has come to reinvent the Humanities degrees, including English, just as the sciences degrees are constantly being reinvented. Reading these days that plenty of modern Australian Literature might disappear because so many rather recent books have gone out of print, it occurs to me that we need graduates to acquire editing skills that help preserve the literary legacy. In my degree, though, we never allude to text editing. I also miss teaching my students more about how to write reviews, blog posts, other contributions to social media that might help increase general literacy (I proposed a new subject, but my proposal was rejected). Our students have, generally speaking, no idea about what is going on in the world of Literature because we don’t have a subject in which we discuss where to find the novelties, how to develop one’s own criteria and so on. And we need to integrate creative writing –or be clear that we teach academic writing. I find it rather pitiful that someone with an English degree cannot write a poem (even a bad one), a short story or even a scene in a TV episode. There are many ways, you see?, to move beyond the canon and wokeism, and build new English degrees that are relevant for our times. Before it is too late.
The declining admission figures in Britain are sending a message that goes beyond the opinion of any Secretary of Education, and this message will not be answered with platitudes about the beauties of reading (which can be done with no degree) or the importance of critical skills (which can be acquired in other degrees). The time may have come to radically redraw the English degrees, not thinking of the steep fees or the employment opportunities but of what advanced literacy may mean in a 21st century society that is fast approaching the abyss of climate change, and in which we need above all persons who can persuade others to literally save our fragile civilization. For that, good rhetorical skills and a high command of English learned from reading the best authors is needed, hence the importance of protecting the English degrees though, clearly, not as they are now. Be ready for change.
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