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The death of the English literature degree

Thanks to “critical theory”, the study of English literature has become overrun with boring academics who hardly inspire the next generation

O tempora! O mores! O literae humaniores! Well, not quite, but it is the study of English, rather than classical, literature that seems to be under threat in our universities at the moment. For all the dismissive talk about dead languages, it’s the novels, poems and drama in our own tongue that have been considered surplus to requirements, as course after course has been axed or gutted. From Leicester University deciding that medieval literature is irrelevant to Cumbria scrapping its English degree altogether, the writing is very much on the wall for serious, in-depth study of great writers and their work. 

In the case of Cumbria, the end of the department is especially egregious. The course bumph boasts that students will study in the Lake District, “a landscape which has been a source of inspiration to generations of poets and writers”, and that the appreciation of Wordsworth, Coleridge (and, if you must, Beatrix Potter) will be strengthened by studying at the “only university campus in the UK located in a Unesco world heritage site”. In a pig’s arse, friend, as Larkin — a man whose Lake District connections were summed up by his line “Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth” — might have said. Students are deserting literature degrees in their droves, and it’s not hard to see why. I thought, ruefully of the old joke: “What does an English graduate say to you?” “Is that eat-in or takeaway?” Like many old jokes, that one isn’t funny any more.

Our brave new government has little time for book-based degrees

The nominal reason why the study of English is declining in popularity is that, with the expense of degree courses now reaching ever-greater heights, fewer and fewer graduates want to leave university with a qualification that will not guarantee them a well-paid job almost immediately. Gavin Williamson may have upset many vice-chancellors and heads of department in February when he made the government’s bias towards STEM subjects explicit, talking dismissively about young people taking “dead-end courses” which “give them nothing but a mountain of debt”. But all old Poker was doing was making it clear that this brave new government, headed by a classicist and with an English literature graduate as all-powerful minister for the Cabinet Office, has little time for book-based degrees. Give us science and engineering or give us nothing, he might have said. 

Yet, in fact, the rot has set in for decades, and shows no signs of being ameliorated. It is hard to know who was initially to blame — FR Leavis? Foucault? Derrida? But there was a point in the Sixties that the study of English literature became almost entirely supplicated to a brave new style of teaching, known as “critical theory”. All of a sudden, ideas about whether a work could be described as any good were dismissively belittled as “reader-response theory”. 

Instead, a new canon was drawn up, with the intrinsic worth and value of literature within it showily ignored. Instead, led by the modish teaching of various donkey jacketed-types at the “new” universities of the Sixties and Seventies — so brilliantly caricatured by Malcolm Bradbury in his novel The History Man reading English became a values-oriented, joyless slog through textbooks and pamphlets that had all the joy and élan of a wet weekend in Skegness. Academics were only awarded their PhDs if they went along with this new orthodoxy, and many of them were radicalised along the way. Long before any ideas of “woke” had entered the mainstream, 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.

Students are now angry and politicised, rather than young people who just want to learn

There were ways round this, thank God. I spent three happy years at Oxford and only twice had to deal with the horrors of critical theory. I once had a furious argument with a tutor because he had told me proudly that he had spent a weekend by Lake Geneva and had not bothered looking at the lake, so enthralled had he been by a conference on some particularly dark area of semiotics theory or a similar horror. I told him that he should have got a life and that he was entirely missing the point of the Romantic writers that he pretended to espouse. We did not get on so well, he and I. But by and large, I was taught by sympathetic and able men and women who were able to see the intrinsic value in the study of literature for its own sake, rather than as some bastardised form of life science. I very much doubt that I would have pursued a writing career without my time there. 

Now, of course, it’s all very different. 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. They are only too willing to embrace literary study as another wing of the culture wars, and woe betide all the various “dead white men” whose ghosts still haunt the curriculum.

One particularly regrettable student of my cohort boasted that she didn’t bother studying Shakespeare (a compulsory paper) because she didn’t believe that she should be reading work by a patriarchal oppressor. Then, her viewpoint was seen as a regrettable outlier; now, it would have to be tolerated, even valued. And those who teach them are in no better position, either. If they oppose the new orthodoxy, they must do so quietly, without making too much fuss about it. But many have found it easier to go along with its doctrinal absurdities. If you can tell students that 2 + 2 = 5, it no longer matters. The chances of most of them having read Nineteen Eighty-Four, an old book written by a white Old Etonian, are practically nil anyway. 

It therefore comes as little surprise that English literature degrees are on the way out. And, much to my shame, I cannot say that I am particularly sad about their demise. If this particular cleansing of the Augean stables leads to the return of academics who are passionate (that dread word) about English literature as a living, breathing art, and who can inspire young people to go out and be journalists, writers, teachers and practitioners of the written word, then I can only hope that this reversal comes sooner rather than later.

For otherwise all that we are left with is the empty bleating of academics who barely believe what they are saying any more, and the half-incoherent response of a generation that has never had a chance to know any better. For all of our sakes, it would be best if the study of English literature is treated seriously once more, and given the credibility that it deserves. For the alternative, this slow slide into apathy and irrelevance, is a tragedy in the making, and needs to be put out of its misery forthwith.

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