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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

There must have been a time when the vocation of English Departments in Universities was to educate students in language and literature. Criticism has dismantled the idea of education and of literature, the culture of common or almost common values that went with them, and in the new millennium the odds is gone. If anything is left remarkable beneath the visiting moon it is doubtful that we would agree about it.

Nowadays in the Heorots of learning, from which the Latin and Anglo Saxon languages have been effectively banished, the light of Shakespeare gutters, and the virtual extinction of Spenser and Milton and everything pre-1800 has been accomplished. All that stands between us and the erasure of the older past is not Beowulf the hero but a few agencies and committees. One of the tasks of the Quality Assurance Agency is to issue 'benchmark statements', and Professor Patrick Parrinder, a QAA member, defends the most recent statement in the Autumn/ Winter 2000 English Association Newsletter. 'The task of the benchmarking group was to specify, not the range of options that should be offered to English students, but the subject knowledge and skills associated with English degrees.' The mark on the bench is modest: Single Honours students should be able to demonstrate 'knowledge of writing from periods before 1800' which, Professor Parrinder reminds us, is the date of the first publication of the 'Preface' of Lyrical Ballads.

Some find the statement bland, others provocative and polemical. Periods' is plural, to be sure; there is, however, no requirement, no suggestion, no exhortation, that every university student of English should have a core of shared knowledge, a few shared authors or texts, with every other student of English. What then, irreducibly, are `the subject knowledge and skills associated with English degrees' that the benchmarkers assert? It has been possible for some years now for students in many institutions to avoid altogether Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope; or Marlowe, Jonson, Donne and Herbert. Or Shakespeare. Sometimes Chaucer isn't even an unpopular option. Time after time committed students have detailed knowledge of Angela Carter but not of the authors, even a very few of the authors, out of whom her work grew. It is hard to overstate the impact of the Authorised Version, or of Shakespeare, on the outstanding writers of the Caribbean, yet those who study their work are often quite ignorant of The Tempest and the Bible.

'As everyone knows, students offered a choice between pre-1800 and post-1800 modules opt overwhelmingly for the latter,' says Professor Parrinder. So? At what stage is choice offered and how is choice informed? Which areas of the curriculum are negotiable and which are strictly non-negotiable? At tertiary level, the argument runs, notions of curriculum and canon have no authority. Nothing is non-negotiable. Part of the process of education in English language and literature is for each student to construct his or her own route, mark his or her own bench. It is the job of teachers to persuade and sell their periods, or genre courses,or themed modules, to customers who, for the most part, because they want to excel in the only way they know how, because they are victims of a culture of 'relevance', 'opt overwhelmingly'. And the opt culture dominates in some instances from year one, in most from year two of a three year course.

At what point does the notion of an education in English literature and language cease to signify? How much ignorance of a subject can an education and an Honours Degree contain? Students who do English A-level can base their course very narrowly; good teachers urge students to read around set texts and read excitedly, riskily; efficient teachers tell their students to read The Remains of the Day no fewer than four times. There are right answers to the set question on Eliot, or Dickinson, or Frankenstein. Students are taught to take exams and write plausible, word-processed, machine-corrected papers. They choose subjects with which their skills of organisation and repetition are most readily able to engage. Such Pavlovian conditioning means that when they arrive at a Milton, or a Blake, or a Shakespeare, they can get no purchase on the rebarbative, the radical. For them the English Bible is superstition or Sunday School. It is not the divine instrument which opened out the English mind and tongue from the fourteenth century onward. The faith that built the English church and in the seventeenth century split the English realm for most of them is a tussle of opinions, and outdated anyway.

Professor Parrinder is patient, realistic, and like all of us who teach English in Universities, doing his best to be fair and honourable in a marketplace where the values of fairness and honour often seem to belong to a vanished age. Martin Dodsworth, on the page of the Newsletter following Professor Parrinder's piece, sets out the following numbers:

These figures relate to another acronym, the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) whereby university departments are rewarded for their zeal in research - or is it rather in the recruitment of teaching staff with book contracts and very few teaching responsibilities? The chips are stacked determinedly against new and provincial Universities; rich, premier leaguers recruit calculatingly, and the calculations are those of the moneylenders. No matter how good your teaching is, 3b is not £20,558 multiplied by the number of 'research active' members in a department. And what is 'research active'? That's another story altogether.

Oxford is losing the Warton Professor Terry Eagleton (see PN Review 80, Editorial) who, rumour has it as we go to press, has accepted a Chair at the Victoria University of Manchester.

This item is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

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