Does English literature have a future?

Considering how the world seems to be becoming ever more utilitarian and technocratic, this question preoccupies us. Arts and humanities courses are being threatened by a shift towards ‘skills-based’ learning.

Alice Crossley, on Reaction, warns that we may overlook the “war on culture” that is being fought “under our noses” in the midst of all the furore about culture wars.

The decline of arts and humanities subjects at our universities is more important than the bickering between Gen Z and boomers, owing to the prevailing view that “educational wealth” is less important than “economic wealth”.

Sheffield Hallam University’s suspension of English literature caused an outcry last week. In fact, it merely embodied a larger trend in higher education: the University of Roehampton recently axed its arts and humanities coursesIn fact, it merely embodied a larger trend in higher education: the University of Roehampton recently axed its arts and humanities courses, citing a need for “skills-led” learning, which was in tandem with “greater engagement with employers”. De Montfort, Huddersfield, and Wolverhampton are also said to be considering similar plans.

Universities serve what purpose? It is a place for learning and growth, for developing critical thinking and communication skills. According to The Guardian, the government’s approach is “grimly utilitarian”. For graduates who wish to repay their loans as soon as possible, funding is being increased for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), while courses that are deemed to be of mediocre quality are being subjected to “increasingly aggressive scrutiny”.

Universities are places where we ought to be learning how to engage with the world critically and imaginatively, to see things from different perspectives and to understand the complexities of human experience. But if they continue to prioritise “skills-led” learning over a breadth of knowledge, they will be doing a disservice to both their students and society as a whole.

According to James Marriott in The Times, English literature is doomed no matter what funding issues are present. A-level tables have also declined as its “cultural prestige” has faded, as well as its popularity as a degree course.

Studying great literature was considered noble and humane once because it communicated a “universal humanity.” Nowadays, this doctrine is considered outdated: the canon is no longer perceived as humanity’s “universal inheritance”, but as a “chauvinist embarrassment”. Despite my love for English literature, its study is destined to fade into marginality, just as it did in classical and theological studies.

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