The Death of the English Literature Degree

"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"
Alexander Larman writing in The Critic

It might seem odd to take pleasure in the decline and possible death of English Literature as a degree subject. The number of students reading the subject at degree level is declining and some universities, most recently Cumbria, are closing down their English Literature departments. However, I think the extinction and possible regeneration of English Literature degree courses might not be a bad thing for men.

English Literature can be thought of as ‘patient zero’ in the rise of ‘Critical Theory’ in academia. ‘Theory’ (ideology would be a better term) had been in use as a form of literary criticism before it metastasised to other areas of study. What it entailed was a Manichean worldview in which the world is divided into victims and oppressors operating according to invisible systems of power. The text was then analysed according to these binaries and invisible power structures. The usual victim/oppressor binaries are summarised in the table below. The common feature of these Manichean binaries is that western white heterosexual males are the common enemy. Of course, the one that concerns us most in this blog is the feminist approach.

ApproachOpressorsOpressedStructure
MarxistBourgeoisieProletariatCapitalism
Feminist MenWomenPatriarchy
Post colonial theoryColoniserColonisedPower
Race TheoryWhite peoplePeople of colourWhite supremacy
Queer theoryStraight peopleGay peopleHeteronormativity
Types of Literary Theory

Andrew Doyle ( the author of the parody Twitter account Titania McGrath) gives a hilarious account of how easy it was to get top marks at Oxford by adopting this degraded binary approach to literature. He goes on to observe that this is the antithesis of great literature that accepts that there is good and evil in all of us. It is also an approach the renders the opinions and context of the author irrelevant and practitioners are quite prepared to work ‘against the grain’ of the author’s intentions and viewpoint. The other more serious problem with this approach is that you start with a-priori beliefs and ‘mine’ the text for examples that support that belief. This is an exercise in confirmation bias, not scholarship. For good accounts of how English Literature departments have become degraded by ‘Critical Theory’, I recommend two articles, The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory published in Quillette here and the Death of the English Literature Degree published in The Critic here. English Literature was perhaps the first front in the culture wars and it would be fitting if it was an early casualty (the first casualty was rational and nuanced thought).

The degradation of English Literature departments matters a lot because of the penetration of it’s graduates into large parts of the mainstream media both on the frontline working as journalists and also working behind the scenes in publishing. Too many of those working in this sector seem to have accepted uncritically the Manichean world view of their university tutors and it is the lens through they view the world. If only the English Literature degree was, as some have claimed, a dead-end degree we would be in a much better place. Instead, the dyspeptic failures of English Literature courses at our elite universities have colonised large sectors of the ‘fourth estate’.

Here is a small sample of Journalists with English Literature degrees and simplistic feminist views.

Katherine Viner. Editor of the Guardian. Read English Literature at Pembroke College Oxford.

Marina Hyde. (born Marina Elizabeth Catherine Dudley-Williams) Journalist at the Guardian. Read English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford.

Gabby Hinsliff. Guardian Columnist. Read English Literature at Queens College Cambridge.

Emma Brockes. Freelance journalist. Sometime contributor to the Guardian. Read English at St Edmund Hall Oxford University.

Hadley Clare Freeman. Guardian Columnist. Read English at St Annes College Oxford.

Helen Lewis. Journalist at the Atlantic and New Statesman. Notable for an interview with Jordan Peterson in which she was unable to hide her icy contempt. Read English at St, Peters College Oxford

Laura Bates. Runs the Everyday Sexism project that collects unverified testimony. Author of the frankly toxic Men who Hate Women. Read English Literature at St Johns College, Cambridge.

Ceri Radford. Reviews books for the Independent and takes a strong feminist line. Read Medieval Languages at Downing College Cambridge.

Samira Ahmed. Broadcaster at the BBC. Educated at the independent Wimbledon High  School then read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

Naga Muchetty Read English Literature and language at Leeds University.

Jane Garvey. Presenter BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour. Read English at Birmingham.

Victoria Derbyshire. Journalist, newsreader and broadcaster. Read English Literature at Liverpool.

Isabel Hardman. Journalist and assistant editor at The Spectator. Read English Literature at Exeter University. Actually one of the better journalists in this list but she did have a real go at Ben Bradley, MP. for daring to suggest that there should a minister for men.

Given the large number of posh English Lit graduates who work for the Guardian, it is no surprise that the Guardian should launch a defence of the English degree (here) arguing that it produces a more rounded person. Looking at the Guardian journalists I see little evidence of this supposed breadth of outlook. Indeed, the lack of cognitive diversity is a problem among commentators on gender issues. The more English Literature departments that the close the better and hopefully something better will grow in their place and we may finally get some more usefully educated journalists.

By femgoggles

I was abandoned by my parents in the black mountains and raised by timberwolves. On my return to the 'civilised world' with questionable table manners, I became a detached observer of human behaviour in general and gender relations in particular. This blog is the product of those observations.

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