Close English departments for benefit of nation, says Naipaul

August 31, 2007

Sir Vidia Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, called this week for university English literature departments to close. But academics shrugged off his attack on universities as simply the latest in a string of provocations by the acclaimed and controversial novelist.

In an interview with The Sunday Times , Sir Vidia said the closure of literature departments "would be a great fillip, a great boost to the intellectual life of the country... it would release a lot of manpower".

He accused academics of spreading "ideas about things that they are determined to get one to accept".

"They distort publishing to some extent," he added. "They publish the books for these courses and it gives an illusion of great popularity, of ideas sweeping the world. But they're not. They're just ideas in grubby little textbooks that are stuffed into students' bags."

The novelist believes universities should deal in "measurable truth" and teach only science.

Most English literature academics contacted by The Times Higher dismissed Sir Vidia's remarks.

Neelam Srivastava, lecturer in colonial and post-colonial literature at Newcastle University, said: "It's hard to rebut his statements because they seem so over the top - it's not clear what his reasoning is. He seems very wary of the way academics analyse concepts. He's probably been hurt by criticism."

Patricia Waugh, head of Durham University's department of English studies, said: "His notion of science is completely out of date - there is no simple idea of truth even in the science department. Scientific data can be interpreted in different ways." She added: "He seems to be making an argument for a Platonic republic with a philosopher king who lays down the law on what can be talked about. English departments have been the places where cultural ideas and values have been debated for the past hundred years, and in a liberal culture you need that forum."

Another senior academic, who declined to be named, said: "He would be less famous if English literature departments did not exist."

The article traced Sir Vidia's disdain for academe to the publication of his book on Islamic fundamentalism, Among the Believers . He was invited to Harvard University to discuss the book. "They wanted no such thing. They wanted the fellows of their institute to all say their piece of rage and criticism," Sir Vidia said.

In 2000, the novelist was reported to have told the audience at an award ceremony in Bangkok that jargon used in English departments in the UK and the US concealed vacuous thinking. He described academic jargon as "a way for one clown to tell the other that he is in the club".

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