Bard, Beowulf and smart-arses

May 26, 2000

So Oxford University has finally decided to do away with compulsory Anglo-Saxon and the dreaded Beowulf (Soapbox, THES, May 12). Let me declare a lack of interest: I am not an English specialist, I have never read Beowulf and I no longer work in universities. Even so, I deprecate this step. If English is to have any claim to intellectual respectability as an academic discipline, it must make some show of rigour.

I have read that many first-year students arrive at Oxford with little more than a good working knowledge of 20th-century English literature and a couple of plays of Shakespeare. Some have no serious acquaintance with poetry. All the more reason to make them buckle down and struggle with something uncongenial and markedly different.

Twenty years ago, I recall discussing the career prospects of a graduate trainee who had just been appointed to the university library where I worked. I told her that, as an English graduate (admittedly not from Oxford, but from a solid redbrick university, not a million miles away) she would have a head start over her colleagues in her postgraduate library and information studies, because she would be fully aware of historical bibliography and textual transmission: vital disciplines for many academic librarians and all English students. She demurred: her three years at university had, she said, really consisted of reading books and writing essays about them.

Since then it has become worse. Eng.Lit., never the most respectable of subjects, has descended close to the bottom of the pit. Mired in modish Parisian claptrap that it dignifies by referring to as "theory", it abandons anything that might stretch its students' intellectual powers, such as Old English, philology, etymology, textual criticism, bibliography, and focuses instead on witty and amusing responses to fashionable works.

All we are doing is breeding the next generation of smart-arse book reviewers.

John Lord Hay-on-Wye

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