English battlefield

January 21, 2000

So Valentine Cunningham does not know what English is ("A varied syllabus with nothing at its core", THES, January 14). It is ironic that his article should appear in the same week that the benchmark group for English published its draft statement.

Thankfully that group of 15 academics from very different institutions, including Cunningham's own, can define the subject. We find its versatility a cause for celebration, not despair. Wherever it is taught, and whatever the text, university English is a demanding, intellectual activity.

The subject also has a special role in sustaining in the general community a constantly renewed knowledge and critical appreciation of the literature of the past and of other cultural forms.

Curricular diversity does not fragment but strengthen. If English were ever to define itself in terms of an agreed core of set texts, the discipline would be truly moribund.

Students' reading draws them into scholarly debates about language, history, ideas, philosophy, aesthetics and the power of the imagination.

Rather than disparage the changing face of the discipline, academics have a responsibility to convince government that this intellectual liveliness is at the heart of education. If the result is to equip graduates with a range of creative and analytical skills that they can apply in wider contexts, does it really matter whether it is Beowulf or Virginia Woolf that has been the stimulus?

Judy Simons De Montfort University Chair, benchmark group for English.

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