The Guardian view on English language and literature: more, please | Editorial

We must take care not to devalue a subject that helps us build a more rounded and healthier body politic

Another summer, another dispiriting announcement for English teachers: according to the admissions service Ucas, a third fewer 18-year-olds have applied to study the subject at university this year than in 2012. English academics are beginning to lose their jobs, while one university has paused provision altogether.

Those who teach the subject know why: a championing of science degrees instead of “dead-end courses” (in Gavin Williamson’s widely condemned formulation earlier this year) that has emphasised supposedly superior employability; a galloping instrumentalisation of education; and an alienating set of curriculum reforms. A primary school emphasis on linguistic terminology and an unintuitive approach to sentence construction, brought in under the English graduate Michael Gove, is taken through to GCSE, where coursework and spoken language elements were removed along with popular options in 20th-century American literature and drama. A rise in rote learning has been noted, along with a decline in interest in pupils’ own responses to great literature. The conversion rate from A-level to degree level, 14%, has not changed – underlying the decline in university applications is a slump in the number taking English A-levels.

University College London appointed the first professor of English in 1828 – but it was a few years later at King’s College London that the study of literature was given more emphasis and deliberately set against a utilitarian model of education. “Knowledge cannot be poured into the mind like a fluid mechanically transfused from one vessel to another,” wrote HJ Rose, who became the second principal of King’s. “[Literature teaches] the wisdom of men better and wiser than ourselves … [and] prepares us best of all for the examination of those moral and intellectual truths which are not only the worthiest exercise of our reason, but most concern our future destiny.”

English language and literature are now among the UK’s most successful exports; passports to work and life across the globe. English graduates are found throughout the creative industries, in law, the civil service, diplomacy, advertising, politics; they are entrepreneurs, teachers, digital innovators – all areas where the skills of critical analysis, lateral thinking and flexibility are prized. The Canadian prime minister is an English graduate; the first American woman in space studied it alongside physics. But, as Prof Rose knew, the subject can provide far more: it is a way to think about our relations with each other and with nature, about our rights and moral responsibilities, and the powers and limits of science; it demands that we at least try to see the world from others’ points of view. (A 2014 study found that the effects were measurable: schoolchildren who had read Harry Potter showed an increase in empathy toward immigrants, refugees and gay people.)

Literacy is not just about sounding out a sentence – it includes emotional literacy, historical literacy, and literacy in the structures of power and rhetoric: who is telling you this? How? Why? Is it working? What do you think? Language is one of the most powerful tools humans possess: we all need thoughtful training in how to manage it, and how to protect ourselves from those who abuse it. Helping children to be safe online, for instance, includes teaching them to read for manipulation and intent. Finally, literature provides deep, complex, lifelong pleasure, which too often gets forgotten as a worthy end in itself.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

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