Looming budget cuts threaten to “change the ecology” of US universities, with the study of humanities most likely to suffer, one of the world’s leading literary critics has warned.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Christopher Ricks said that proposed cuts of $9 billion (£7.2 billion) to Department of Education spending and funding reductions for other bodies that support academic research, outlined in US president Donald Trump’s budget “blueprint” last month, would lead to American universities redoubling their efforts to find more international students able to pay full tuition fees.
These students typically study science or technology subjects, explained Sir Christopher, formerly professor of poetry at the University of Oxford and now William M. and Sara B. Warren professor of the humanities at Boston University.
“These students are not coming to study Wittgenstein or T. S. Eliot,” said Sir Christopher, who was knighted in 2009 for services to scholarship and has been described by Oxford emeritus professor of English literature John Carey as the world’s “greatest living critic”.
“Foreign students will come to study science, technology or engineering and it will be imperative to get these students,” Sir Christopher said.
That increased drive to take on more international students would necessitate greater expenditure on science-based subjects at the expense of the arts and humanities, he predicted.
“The distortive thing about [massive cuts to higher education]…is that it may cause a change in the ecology of a university, which, for financial reasons, may have to accommodate many more full fee-paying students in areas that they are interested in,” he said.
Sir Christopher spoke to THE at the New College of the Humanities, in London, where he has given about four lectures a year since the private liberal arts college opened in 2012.
The college has championed its use of Oxbridge-style one-to-one tutorials, but Sir Christopher noted that his exasperation with this type of teaching was a central reason for his having left Worcester College, Oxford in 1968 to take up a professorship at the University of Bristol.
“The system can be good, but the onus is very much on students and does not leave much for academics,” he explained, saying the volume of literature covered by Oxbridge tutors makes it hard for them to research. “In the tutorial system, you have to be a GP rather than a consultant.”
While it is often held out as the gold standard for undergraduate teaching, Sir Christopher argued that the one-to-one tutorial is, in some ways, quite limiting to students’ academic development.
“The tutorial where the tutor listens to a student set forth on a certain book uses itself up rather quickly [as a teaching tool],” he said. “They tend to make the same good-humoured, good-natured mistakes each week – it doesn’t tend to be that variable.”
In contrast, a seminar can “open up into a lively conversation between students” and head into unusual and unexpected directions, “a little like the beginning in Reservoir Dogs” – referring to the expletive-ridden opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film debut in which gangsters discuss, among other things, the meaning of the Madonna song Like a Virgin and the merits of tipping in restaurants.
Fans of Sir Christopher’s electrifying lectures on Keats, Tennyson and Bob Dylan, whom he has described as one of the great literary voices of the 20th century alongside Samuel Beckett and T. S. Eliot, will be unsurprised to hear that this medium is his favourite.
“Even as an undergraduate, I always liked lectures the most,” he explained, rebuffing claims that today’s students want fewer large lectures and more small-group teaching. “There is something special about having 150 or 200 students in a room and someone is having a sustained say on a particular issue."
His own decades-long appreciation of Dylan, including Visions of Sin, his 2003 paean to the freewheeling 1960s icon, is well known. However, Sir Christopher seemed strangely ambivalent about Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.
While Dylan is a “genius of and with language”, Sir Christopher believes that the Nobel prize should be “limited to words alone” – something that Dylan’s poetry is not, he explained.
Are there any other contemporary musicians who might be worthy of Nobel recognition in future? Perhaps Kanye West, Kate Bush, Paul Simon or Paul McCartney?
Sir Christopher would not be drawn. “I know people will say that Ricks loves every song Dylan wrote and thinks everyone else is terrible, but that’s not true,” he said.
The real reason is that Sir Christopher, now 83, admits he quickly lost touch with contemporary music, and thus potential literary greats, because artists were typically recommended to him by his students.
“When I started listening and thinking about Dylan, I was only a few years older than my students," he said. "When you hit your thirties, students simply don’t give you the same tips about music.”