Shakespeare has been knocked off the top spot as the most studied English option at university by women writers. But, says Judy Simons, this does not necessarily mean a dumbing-down of the degree
In Anthony Powell's series of novels A Dance to the Music of Time, that exemplar of 20th-century Philistinism, Widmerpool points out the dangers of reading modern literature. "It doesn't do to read too much ... You get to look at life with a false perspective. By all means have some familiarity with the standard authors. I should never raise any objection to that. But it is no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.'' Five years ago, The THES greeted with relish the news that Shakespeare was no longer compulsory reading for English undergraduates. At about the same time the "Angela Carter syndrome" gained notoriety, as the British Academy reported that it received more applications to fund English doctoral research on Carter than on the literature of the entire 16th, 17th and 18th centuries put together. Both statements were greeted as evidence that a degree in English was losing its intellectual rigour and its street credibility, even though Angela Carter is generally regarded as being among the most textually sophisticated of contemporary artists.
The 1998 survey for the Council for College and University English, published this week at a University of London conference entitled "What English Should We Teach?", produces more surprises about the modern study of university English. It reveals that most English degrees offer a wide range of core and option structures. Among the options, women's writing has become the most popular choice, just pipping Shakespeare into second place. Close behind come contemporary writing and American literature.
The statistics should not, however, be taken to indicate that there is a progressive "dumbing down" of English degrees. While Shakespeare has indeed come second to the study of women's writing in students' option choices, with 44 mentions in the popularity stakes, this must be placed in context. Only 44 institutions offer Shakespeare as an option; the others make the study of Shakespeare compulsory. Women's writing, on the other hand, is compulsory in only two institutions. So the fact it receives 49 votes in the students' top ten is less remarkable than might be supposed, especially given that most undergraduates enrolled on English degree programmes are women, themselves seeking a critical location in the history of literary study.
The survey also highlights a strong but previously unrecognised convergence from institution to institution in what is offered. Although it is rare to find a "new" university offering medieval literature, it is not unknown, and the typical foundation year for first-year students in the "new" and "traditional" universities as well as in the colleges shares much common ground, with 87 per cent of courses insisting that students study practical criticism and 79 per cent literary theory, as a basis from which to progress.
But the CCUE survey overwhelmingly shows that university teachers of English in the UK are opposed to the idea of a national curriculum, to any external body determining what a university syllabus should contain. Responses to the CCUE survey were refreshing in their frankness. In answer to the question, "Do you think that there should be a common core to the HE English curriculum?" several replies remarked that we already had one. Only one respondent was in favour of a set curriculum, and then "only if I can set it!" This is not merely a self-defensive stance from which academics jealously guard an entrenched position. For what is taught and what is learned through reading English at university are not necessarily identical. While academics insist on autonomy and academic freedom, they are also fighting for the fact that an English degree programme cannot be reduced to a series of set books. Rather, the literary syllabus is a stimulus that enables students to explore further, to inculcate a sense of enquiry and imaginative excitement that is uncontainable in any official description of a course module.
An enlightening footnote to the debate is that 79 per cent of academics surveyed felt that the ability to engage in discussion of ethical values still remains an essential or desirable outcome of studying English; only 4 per cent suggested it was of no relevance. The Blairite agenda still has a long way to go before it penetrates British university thinking about the purpose of a degree in the humanities.
It remains vital that we continue to remind ourselves and our students that the "value" of literature extends way beyond mere functionalism to release an awareness of the expressive resources of language and the intellectual flexibility that is its natural accompaniment. This is the true purpose of the curriculum, what drives its design and determines the choices our students confront. We should not fall into the trap of accepting preconceived judgements about textual subject or literary period without understanding the theoretical debates that frame university reading practices. It is those debates that engender the intellectual liveliness that characterises our graduates. Perhaps we ought to tell them so more clearly.
Judy Simons is dean of humanities and social sciences at De Montfort University and chair of the Council for College and University English.