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Must we mourn a decline in English degrees?

It does not entail the decline of English literature

Artillery Row

It has been a dark few weeks for anyone who cares about the future of literature in Britain. Once again, it seems, the Tories have displayed their spiteful disregard for the young and disadvantaged by suggesting we defund degrees with less employment value. English degrees are becoming increasingly unpopular in this new soulless age of helping people to earn a good living. Even worse, some English departments are closing.

There are, as will be apparent to English graduates everywhere, several problems with this. First, there is the obvious and necessary role of the state to fund what the market cannot, and to therefore keep dozens of English departments open in order to provide young people with an economically substandard education that will act as a pipeline of disenfranchised left-wing voters who only get wise after the fact to the problem of taking out a forty thousand pound loan to read books you can download for free online.

It’s telling that the reasons given are pretty lame

Second, there is the fact that English teaches vital skills like close reading and critical thinking. With an English degree, you can really pick something apart and understand it with reference to any outmoded, discredited or unsubstantiated framework you like. Where else will our young people learn critical thinking skills if they are discouraged from reading Virginia Woolf or John Donne?

Finally, there is the inherent value of English. The cream of the literary crop — a dozen or so academics, novelists, screenwriters and some of the less well-known members of Parliament — have been telling the Guardian just how much they enjoyed their degrees. Many of them cite the fact that three years of reading imaginative literature develops your empathy. 

Okay, let’s get serious. Reading can help people to develop empathy. But empathy is something the literary establishment seems singularly unable to exercise on behalf of the young people choosing not to study English. (It’s telling that this decline hasn’t been halted by the drive to make literature more relevant and accessible, the very opposite of empathy training.) The Tories have not, Henry VIII style, gone round the country shuttering thriving departments. Demand has fallen because the worth of literature, obvious and splendid though it is, doesn’t always merit taking a full degree.

According to the Sutton Trust, you can earn a better starting salary as a Sports Science, Hospitality or Tourism graduate than as an English grad. Shocker! It’s easy to talk a good talk about English being open to everyone, but none of these novelists and lecturers seem to know that having a Maths A-level increases your future earnings by 10 per cent, irrespective of whether you are a graduate or not. How is that not a more important aspect of levelling the playing field than giving everyone the option to read Alexander Pope? 

It’s easy to write a Guardian article with a well selected group of Oxbridge English grads and make it look like a fulfilling and worthwhile choice. But it’s telling that the reasons given are pretty lame; you get a much better sense of the value of an English degree from this Reddit thread. Perhaps this lack of an ability to make a decent argument has done the subject no favours? 

Some of the basic critical thinking concepts English grads seem to lack — beyond seeing the importance of being able to earn a good salary, which presumably counts as a major policy consideration when thinking about people of the least advantaged backgrounds taking on massive debts — include the idea of opportunity cost. Yes, you can make a case for English, but you can make the same or stronger case for other subjects. It’s much easier to read literature in your spare time than to teach yourself statistics or engineering. There’s some evidence that graduates come to realise this opportunity cost, with many of them reporting they wish they had studied something else

Of course, it’s silly to regret your choices. Life is long and you have plenty of time to do something new. Almost all English graduates do something that isn’t related to their degree. This in itself ought to suggest that sampling some of the country’s most enthusiastic and successful English graduates is the sort of myopic mistake English graduates are prone to. If only they had studied something useful alongside all that poetry!

Can English graduates really not take data seriously?

I say this, by the way, as an English graduate. I read Walton Lives and Johnson’s essays in my spare time. I talk about Jane Austen with my children. (My daughter recently hissed when I mentioned Mary Crawford, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a promising sign.) I even go to the trouble of writing a weekly Substack essay, mostly on a literary subject. I am writing a book about late bloomers that will feature the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my heroes. I have unreasonably strong views on the value of Harold Bloom as a critic. I don’t think we serve anyone’s interests by tribally reacting with outrage to the news that English Literature is no longer among the most popular subjects. What possible complaint can we have that maths is now the most popular A-level? How typically “Eng. Lit.” it is to complain that young people have a renewed interest in algebra! 

Aren’t we interested in raising the wage prospects of everyone in society? Don’t we see that ignoring the economic value of a degree is a disservice to young people? Can English graduates really not take data seriously, on this of all topics? Is it not obvious by now that calling the close reading of a poem “critical thinking” is a narrow definition of that skill, at best? Is it really sensible to make such a fuss about the fact that three thousand or so fewer people study English every year? Can an increase of computer science graduates really be bad news? 

If we want more people to see the value in classic literature (and I can’t see that literature is in such a parlous state) we might start by fixing some of these issues. I would note, also, that in the last few years, it has not been unusual to see stories about the increasing sales of classic fiction. It is still the case that young people are spending less time reading than they used to. Having a lot of successful screenwriters and novelists complain about the status of their preferred subject with little reference to pragmatism, reality or genuine critical thinking, however, seems like a poor attempt to reverse that trend.

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