TOAnother summer, another discouraging announcement for English teachers: According to the Ucas admissions service, this year one-third fewer 18-year-olds have applied to study the subject at university than in 2012. English academics are starting to lose their jobs, while one the university has stopped the provision completely.
Those who teach the subject know why: a defense of science degrees instead of “dead-end courses” (in Gavin Williamson widely condemned formulation earlier this year) that has emphasized supposedly superior employability; a galloping instrumentalization of education; and an alienating set of curricular reforms. The elementary school emphasis on linguistic terminology and an unintuitive approach to sentence construction, brought up by English graduate Michael Gove, is carried over to GCSE, where coursework and elements of spoken language were removed along with popular choices in twentieth-century American literature and theater. . An increase in rote learning has been observed, along with a decrease in interest in students’ own responses to great literature. The conversion rate from level A to grade level, 14%, has not changed; underlying the decline in college applications is a drop in the number of students taking A-levels of English.
University College London appointed the first professor of English in 1828, but it was a few years later at King’s College London that more emphasis was placed on the study of literature and deliberately opposed to a utilitarian model of education. “Knowledge cannot be poured into the mind like a fluid mechanically transfused from one container to another.” wrote HJ Rose, who became King’s second director. “[Literature teaches] the wisdom of men who are better and wiser than us … [and] It prepares us, the best of all, for the examination of those moral and intellectual truths that are not only the most worthy exercise of our reason, but also refer to our future destiny ”.
English language and literature are now among the UK’s most successful exports; passports for work and life around the world. English graduates are found in all creative industries, in law, civil service, diplomacy, advertising, politics; They are entrepreneurs, teachers, digital innovators, all areas in which critical analysis skills, lateral thinking and flexibility are valued. The Canadian Prime Minister graduated in English; the first American woman in space studied it along with physics. But, as Professor Rose knew, the subject can contribute much more: it is a way of thinking about our relationships with each other and with nature, about our moral rights and responsibilities, and the powers and limits of science; it demands that we at least try to see the world from other people’s point of view. (A 2014 study found the effects were measurable: schoolchildren who had read Harry Potter showed a increased empathy towards immigrants, refugees and gays.)
Literacy is not just about uttering a sentence, it includes emotional literacy, historical literacy, and literacy in rhetoric and power structures – who is telling you this? How? Why? Is working? To do you think? Language is one of the most powerful tools human beings possess: we all need careful training in how to handle it and how to protect ourselves from those who abuse it. Helping children stay safe online, for example, includes teaching them to read by manipulation and intention. Finally, literature provides a deep, complex, and lifelong pleasure that is too often forgotten as a worthwhile end in itself.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism