Theo Hobson

Why I’m relaxed about the decline of English at university 

Why I'm relaxed about the decline of English at university 
Text settings

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian about the study of English at university. It’s in decline, says Susannah Rustin, which is a shame. Bright youngsters who might once have signed up to a few years of sonnets and Chaucer are feeling pressured to study something more useful like engineering. Let them, and those influencing their choices, not suppose that English is self-indulgent thumb-twiddling; let them not forget that it sharpens the critical faculties, and ‘has a humanistic role… in advancing a more expansive and democratic version of Englishness than the nativist one.’

It happens that Susannah Rustin and I studied English together at York University in a previous century, so I’d like to resume an argument that I think I had with her back then, in the pages of a precocious little campus magazine. Yes, English is fun to study. But it’s a discipline that lacks discipline. And so I am more sanguine about its decline since the days of our teenage enthusiasm for it.

English used to be the queen of the humanities. At school it was what the brightest arty kids wanted to study - there was an air of Dead Poets Society, or Tobias Wolfe’s novel Old School (Dead Poets Society for grown-ups). When I went back to my old school a decade ago my old teacher was sad to report that this aura had faded: at A-level the boys were being nudged in more practical and lucrative directions by their blue-chip parents. I agree there’s something sad about that, but on the other hand its stock was overvalued (to echo the lingo of those parents) and a correction was in order.

For much of the twentieth century, English had the vague aura of a post-religious faith. It was vaguely but earnestly hoped that people would learn a sort of refinement of feeling here, a deeper humanity, a capacity for courageous empathy. The Romantics were obviously central to this, but maybe the creed’s essence is the belief of Dorothea Brooke and her creator George Eliot that literature teaches one empathy. It’s not rot, but it’s semi-rot. It’s what T.E. Hulme called ‘spilt religion’. Such a belief in the humane power of literature is really a spin-off from Protestant tradition: it is a way of recycling one’s religious impulses when one stops believing in God.

Of course in my day this idea of the semi-holy wisdom of literature was trashed and ridiculed by the academics - and deconstructed, and made into fodder for politically correct theory. But even that iconoclasm is a muddled bit of religious spillage. And, in the hands of feminist critics especially, it co-exists with the old Dorothea earnestness - still the core creed of the Guardian books pages, in which authors are invited to testify how the power of literature saved their lives.

What I’m getting at is that the ascendancy of English was not very good for the humanities, due to the muddled post-faith thing. And yet literature is worth studying. So I think universities should offer it along with other more rigorous humanities subjects in which students have to grapple with the history of ideas. Literature students tend to have a superficial grasp of the history of ideas, that extends from Wollstonecraft to Woolf. Via Dorothea of course.