A varied syllabus with nothing at its core

January 14, 2000

In the future, lecturers in English will be reduced to teaching grammar to economists and engineers, predicts Valentine Cunningham in the second of our series on subjects after the year 2000

English attracts more student applications than any other undergraduate subject. This is pleasing for its teachers, but intriguing for a subject that has never agreed about what it is. Maybe it is the vagueness, the all-things-to-all-persons aspect of English that keeps its attractions high.

From its start in marginal Victorian institutions for girls, nonconformists and northern workers, English has been given over to identity doubts and crises. The late F. W. Bateson was fond of quoting the old rhyme about geography being about maps, and biography being about chaps, and then asking, "But what is English about?" What indeed? We Anglicists have always been slippery about the nature of our trade.

Our borders have been peculiarly permeable, easy prey to invasion from "other" territories - linguistic, social, political, philosophical, theological. We have been inclined to territorial excursions ourselves: dripping our notions and practices freely onto other people's fields.

Of course the linguistic stuff our texts are made of might be thought the cue and sponsor for this happy territorial mess.

Remember James Murray's wisely magisterial opening remarks to the Oxford English Dictionary, talking of the boundless edges of the English vocabulary and the curious linguistic species it has acquired as neighbours: "There is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference. It is not possible to fix the point at which the 'English language' stops."

The only difference nowadays is that fewer and fewer of us are confident about any "well-defined centre" of texts or reading strategies and more and more of us are mindful only of "no defining lines in any direction".

All of "English" looks increasingly like "other English". The old arguments continue, but with self-renewing vigour. As insoluble as ever are our traditional failures to agree on what a text is; about what our list (syllabus, canon) of main objects of pedagogical attention should comprise; what the act of reading is; what literary meaning is; and what even the main aim of our hermeneutical activities should be. Only the noise of our dissensions is louder.

Which is all very bracing intellectually - and many of our students are indeed braced by a subject continually revising itself. That is one reason, I would say, why English graduates make such thinking and creative graduates. One manifest political trouble, though, is that our ongoing self-doubt does not make for a set of ends and means to impress public scrutineers. Our project sits awkwardly in mission statements.

Funders do not like it. Literary study disconcerts the Gradgrinds of educational weights and measures: it lacks vocational resonance.

I suspect government patience will get closer to snapping and that the smile of the paymaster will be increasingly directed to English as a mere feeder subject (English for economists, engineers, lawyers and the like). In some American universities there is now more money in "rhetoric" (teaching grammar and composition and so on for other faculties) than in English literature. This disposition of resources cannot be long, I fear, in coming here.

Whatever happens to our budgets, it is not difficult to foresee English and the idea of English dissolving into varieties of English, into Englishes, in fact - bits and regions and compartments of English study - or disappearing altogether into marriages of political convenience with more temporarily confident subjects such as cultural studies.

Some of the coming fragmentation will undoubtedly be driven by the demands of specialisation. It is clear that research into literary and linguistic matters is becoming increasingly focused in local centres of narrowed scrutiny, not least because this is the scientific model of research that the funding agencies admire and think humanities work should progress in. The future is research centres of specialist excellence: Scottish literature pursued up there, textuality down here, editing in this corner, medievalism in that and so on. And once this tendency really sets in, undergraduate studies will inevitably follow the interests of researchers who are also paid to teach. Naturally, research centres will soon lose interest in undergraduates. It has happened in science. The day of the literary general practitioner is gone in many places and it will go here. The prospects for the serious jack-of-all-trades department look grim, too.

Some of the inevitably increasing fissiparousness of English studies will be motored more by prevailing local ideologies. The desire for a fixed core in courses of literary study seems increasingly old-fashioned, and anyway threatened by mere time-and-motion considerations.

Students cannot read everything possible. And there is almost no text at all that is not grist to the English mill. The study of contemporary writing, repeated shifts of theoretical and historical perspective; the loosening of canons; and the busy multiplying up of possible authors and texts mean the potential syllabus is too gloriously big for any one small course, let alone one small head.

Much that was once highly valued falls off the pier, as Angela Carter squeezes out Henry Fielding (indeed, the whole of the 18th century, according to recent reports of what graduates want to specialise in). Even Shakespeare's one-time unassailable position as what's been called the "gold standard of English", the core of every core course, will not last.

At the recent "Evaluating Shakespeare" conference held at Royal Holloway College you could hear the anti-universalists sighing in unison with the mere pragmatists when someone hoped Shakespeare would "continue to be the gold standard of value in the new millennium". It is clear that utter variety of syllabus will be the mark of English studies in the future. Reading English will be radically different across the United Kingdom, just as it already markedly is in, say, Germany and the United States.

If anything like a gold standard survives it will surely be based more on some rough concordats about methodology (assumptions about how to read) rather than on particular groups of authors thought to be essential to anyone claiming a knowledge of English literature. We will teach you reading, not particular books or texts or authors: which means courses will rather resemble school lessons, than what university courses were once like.

But even if the gaps between different departments and faculties of English do not widen as much as I fear they might, there is one disparity that is sure to grow: the gulf between the teaching of English and research in it. There is already a tremendous schism between the publishing worlds of junior guides, undergraduate handbooks, critical collections and the articles and books researchers want to write for other grown-ups in the business. This rift will necessarily become more and more a fact of scholarly writing. I doubt if schizophrenia is good for anyone. A widening gap between undergraduate students of literature and their elders in graduate departments is not something we should celebrate.

But the way things are going (and this is a combination of all sorts of pressure, political and economic as well as pedagogical) undergraduates in the new millennium will be managing on a thinner and thinner diet (the hand-out, the heap of photocopied course materials, the email circular, English for Beginners and the like).

Some of their teachers will be content with (and well paid for) producing kiddie study packs. Others, especially those in, or wanting to be in, centres of research, will be thinking and writing ever more subtly for themselves and their consenting adult friends - not least in other research centres.

Of course there will be some trickling-down, as well as pushing-up. There always is. Big words and new-tech ideas have a way of percolating through (some freshers even arrive nowadays from school with once-radical talk of "signifiers" and "signifieds" on their young lips). But this variety of pedagogic isolation - the approach to literature for the young splitting away from the approaches to literature going on over and around their heads - is unfortunate. I want every reader to have a sense of where the cutting edges and the new approaches are.

But isolating differences are, I fear, the order of the future: the student whose syllabus has no Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton in it; the graduate who can tell you all about Prosody or Foucault but not about the Bible or queer studies; the centre of excellence that consists only of experts on Beowulf or manuscripts or Martin Amis.

Variety and complex differences, contradiction even, have, I think, been a glory of English. But they are only glorious when they jostle about in the same head, the same seminar room, the same department - in a variety that will soon be, alas, just history.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, University of Oxford.

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