Hello, Mr. Chips: a solution to the “English Degrees” problem.

This morning the author Michael Rosen tweeted that “Those of us who work in the field of literature in education should be worried. Fewer English A level and degree students, leaves literature in the hands of people who see ‘English’ (at all levels in education) purely as a matter of ‘getting things right’.” This was in response to a Guardian article by Anna Fazackerley, highlighting a fall of more than a third, over the last decade, in those applying to study English at university. The article also reported a deadening utterance by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, that universities should focus on technical courses, “instead of pushing young people into dead-end courses that give them nothing but a mountain of debt”. Finally, the article reported a spirited lashback at Williamson by distinguished literary figures, among them Mark Haddon, Patrick Gale and Marina Warner. Haddon: “You don’t need to declare English as a special case on account of some nebulous, impractical, spiritually improving quality which business-oriented politicians are too coarse to comprehend. It is a great degree on its own terms.” Gale: “English fosters our understanding of one another. If more members of the current cabinet had English literature degrees, you can be sure they wouldn’t be cutting our overseas aid budget or so radically undervaluing the importance of investing in children whose education has been disrupted by the pandemic.” Warner: English degrees offer a “vast and rich repository of knowledge, insights and experience across time”.

I share the concern expressed by Rosen, Haddon, Gale and Warner, as much as I despise the philistine propositions of Gavin Williamson. However, I do not think that provoking a sudden resurgence in the number of people studying English at A Level or university is going to solve the problem we really face – that thanks to serial bad management and lack of investment in education, we have become a nation of philistines and populists. I passionately believe the focus should not be on the attainment of English Lit qualifications, but instead on finding a means of making literature and the arts a natural condition of life for pupils, rather than an optional, and increasingly despised, “extra”. One might revise Patrick Gale’s statement slightly, to say that “if more members of the current cabinet had been exposed to literature and the arts in their formative years, you can be sure they wouldn’t be cutting our overseas aid budget…” and so forth. In a system paralyzed by mismanagement and lack of investment, how might this be achieved?

Patrick Gale and I were contemporaries at Winchester. He will remember as well as I do the Div system, a method much admired and copied by a few other private schools with varying measures of success. “Div” is short for “Division”, the class you were in at any given point in your time at school, regardless of what O or A Levels you had chosen. Div lessons were devoted almost entirely to literature and the arts, regardless of whether you had chosen to specialize in humanities or sciences at A Level. Thus those who were destined, through their A Level choices, to study what are now called Stem subjects at university (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) were nonetheless given a firm grounding in literature, philosophy, history of art, history of music, and so on. In a further refinement of the system, those of us who had opted for humanities were gently but firmly exposed to the latest developments in science and tech, not to mention the history of scientific enquiry. This was “education” at a high level, in the fullest sense of what education really means: qualifications didn’t come into it; the pursuit of truth for its own sake was the guiding principle; nobody’s burning urge to become a scientist, businessman or politician was diluted or extinguished by the project – instead, it was considerably enhanced.  

I foresee that many might too hastily dismiss as pie-in-the-sky the idea of extolling a system set in place by a leading private school. My reply is that it is possible to set up a Div class in a prefab in the depths of the Third World, with next to no budget. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you how – all you need is a book, a brain and a blackboard. That being so, an appropriately adapted form of Div could easily be set in place in all British secondary schools. Who knows? Such a course of action might easily result in at least three noble outcomes: better-rounded and more humane “Stem” specialists and politicians; an expanding inner core of English graduates who will go on to teach, write and inspire; citizens who will not only grow to love literature and the arts, but also consider them a natural condition of life.

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