The English Degree ? Pursuing a Life Less Ordinary

The English Degree ? Pursuing a Life Less Ordinary
Alexander Pope?s famous lines were written at a time when earnest pilgrims, seeking and finding (after a wearying search) the very fountain of knowledge, could kneel to cup their humble hands in the deep but clear water and bring wisdom to their lips to quench their thirst with slow, contemplative draughts. Poor mortals of the twenty-first century who seek the precious wellspring of education, however, invariably find that the (?readily accessible?) fountain has flooded, too full of learning, and the muddied water is hurriedly swallowed. Information is everywhere and, as a result, increasingly difficult to sift through, accommodate and put to use ? let alone savour.
Those who find themselves fortunate enough to pursue higher education (a population group that has more than doubled in the last twenty years)1 are weighed down by the burden of choice between an apparently limitless range of studying options. This uncomfortable freedom is immediately restricted, however, by the constraints of necessity. For younger people leaving school or college, more often than not, foremost among these constraints is the need for parental consent: a consent that, in turn, invariably hinges on the likelihood of financial or other tangible returns at the end of a sizeable three ? or more ? year investment. For most mature students, first degrees or further qualifications are similarly tailored to a financial bottom line, either to increase earning potential or as part of a subsidised employee development programme. Insofar as higher education is seen as a means to an end, it is only seen as valuable or successful if it provides direct vocational or work-specific training.

For higher education institutions themselves, the need to justify the ?products? they are introducing into the free market of employment is concomitant with a growing understanding that they must take on the mantle of a ?public service enterprise?.2 In Britain, the ?red-brick university? boom of two decades ago and the subsequent decline in governmental financial support left many institutions reeling; those that steadied transformed their management to conform to profit-orientated business structures. Higher education institutions, it seems, can no longer afford to be concerned only with the education of their students: they have to compete and to demonstrate that they have an ?economic role? to play.3

Even in developed countries, despite statistics that indicate an increased student population, higher education remains a luxury. What place, then, for courses of study that are not considered a specific vocational training? What place for the study of English literature? In what way can examining the fictional content of outdated books be a means to an identifiable end that will materially benefit society? Many English scholars would suggest, in response, that such questions, like the material ideologies typically informing contemporary educational policy, are unfortunately short-sighted; literature, they would argue, has an ageless quality that affords a more objective perspective on the present. Even when difficulties caused by economic recession, social unrest or embattled public services are deemed pressing and most distressing, as the late Guy Butler (South African poet and Professor of English literature) once wrote, ?that does not mean long-term interests must be neglected. There are occasions when urgent matters may properly benefit from our attending to matters of permanent importance.?4

Others might contend that, as any sophisticated approach to the study of literary texts must at some point give consideration to the wider circumstances of their creation and publication, as well as chronicle their reception, the study of English is also the study of politics and philosophy, of economic and scientific history, of developing principles in psychology and sociology. We have seen that the wealth of knowledge and information ostensibly available for the modern student to acquire is in fact made all the more obscure and confusing because of its disproportionate proliferation, forcing early specialization in one particular area of study. It is thus tempting to proclaim that, for those reluctant to surrender to this trend and thus relinquish the opportunity of a broader general knowledge, the wide sphere of reference for English studies allows students to ?cover as much ground as possible.? Ultimately, however, this would be a dilution of the value of English literature as a subject of study for its own sake; it is also a regressive and limiting view, consigning literature to the phenomena of the past and reducing the English degree to a retrospective study of that past. On the contrary, the process of writing literature is an inherently prospective one because the written or printed (or hypertext) word always looks ahead: it anticipates being read in the future. Our analysis of the response of great writers to their particular historical moments must also acknowledge their concern for our own time. We reflect on the capacity of English studies to teach us how to understand and reply to current demands, and in our turn to participate in the future.

The study of English is often accused of bordering on a dangerous solipsism: immersing the self into a world of abstract ideas and often abstruse literary theory in an attempt to escape the responsibilities of both being in and being for society (apologies to Sartre). Again, it must be stressed that the very nature of literary endeavour ? one communicating with many ? implies a conscious awareness of the relationship between the individual and the society in which he or she lives. Too often, the subtleties and complexities of this relationship remain unquestioned. On the one hand, the widespread gospel of consumerism has encouraged the pursuit of individual gratification, taking priority over any residual sense of community or shared humanity; on the other extreme, the idolatry of popular culture drives an unquestioning conformity to certain (derivative and therefore limited) epistemologies. The student of literature, suspicious of the authority of any ?master narrative?, is aware of the need for the individual mind and spirit to maintain supreme autonomy. At the same time, the interaction between reader and writer forms a paradigm for the social contract formed between individuals, and for the obligations attendant on that contract.

As the advance of science has told us more and more about the world in which we live, we have become less and less comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Nevertheless, we live in an unsafe or, as the corporate consultants would have it, a ?risk-dominated? age: ?twas always thus, and always thus will be?, but nowadays we have hordes of economic and political theorists offering a diet of statistics, graphs and conceptual models to those lacking ?risk management strategies.? As students of these disciplines often discover, however, neat theories and formulas often lose their reassuring symmetry when tested against the rough edge of the experienced world. Despite the best efforts of social scientists and psychologists to define, predict or even control the complex behaviour of the public animal, human nature remains as implacable and as stubbornly erring as ever. Anyone who had mistakenly assumed that new media technology would inevitably lead to a world of hyper-informed humans, facing the twenty-first century better prepared than any generation before them, will have seen enough in the early years of the new millennium to realize that we are as much in crisis as ever. The inhabitants of the global village, reacting to this instability but reluctant to concede ignorance or any sign of weakness, either succumb to an indifferent moral agnosticism or turn to fundamentalist doctrines out of a yearning for solidarity. The English degree does not provide a fixed and absolute point on which to ground ?meaning? in life ? this is for the individual to establish for him or herself ? but it does offer a number of ways in which these difficult issues can be approached.

The study of literature helps us to accept ambiguity through an understanding of how a multiplicity of meanings can be forged in the subtle interplay between the basic structures of language. Single words have various connotations and groups of words create possibilities for alternative interpretations; texts are deliciously compact of these possibilities, challenging the reader to make sense of the interwoven strands of ideas, images and information and teaching him or her valuable analytical skills. This is a mental process analogous to the practical forms of complicated ?problem-solving? that confront the individual participating in society, but it is far more uplifting and gratifying because it is not restricted to the pattern of equation: in the study of literature, things don?t always ?add up?. Keats described this ?negative capability? as the capacity for ?being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason?.5

Another problem of the modern age, hidden behind the plethora of messages that confront us daily on computer and television screens, in newspapers, in advertising hoardings, or even on mobile phones, is the sad truth that we are not required to share ourselves and our ideas with others ? our ?civilisation? has developed to a point where we are able to survive on a day-to-day basis without a real need to communicate. Similarly, as individuals in a culture of the self, we do not desire to be communicated with ? we are not receptive to others. Human beings, however, are social animals: lack of communication with fellow humans ultimately leads to frustration. Miscommunication, in turn, leads to an age-old prejudice bred of misunderstanding. In every kind of human interaction, from corporate transaction to political intervention to civilian engagement, we depend on a language (or languages) from which we are increasingly becoming alienated. Literary study, in contrast, concentrates on the powerful and valuable uses of language. Students taking the English degree discover that language is our great nemesis, but that we do not know what we believe or what we perceive without it; they learn to read, write and speak the language of effective and thorough communication.

Literature, then, is dialogue. It is a conversation between generations, between nations, between the individual and society, and between the self and the soul. It is constantly foregrounding new ideas and different opinions, considering new ways of dealing with ancient problems, and providing new perspectives on the lives we live. The study of literature offers the student experiences from outside his or her frame of reference: it embraces the ?other?. Novels, poems and short stories are the primary sites of debate for theorists who analyse the processes of ?othering? in post-colonial, cultural or gender studies. Now more than ever ? when we constantly hear talk of globalisation and social equality, but rarely hear expressions of global understanding or social empathy ? students in higher education need to make a conscious effort to broaden their horizons.

Recently, the Dearing Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education envisioned a ?learning society?, growing out of ?a change in the values of higher education?.6 This included ?a radical change in attitudes to teaching? and ?a broad context? for chosen courses of study; foremost among the ?necessary outcomes of all higher education programmes? were the ?key skills? of ?communication, both oral and written? and of ?learning how to learn.? The English degree boasts a necessarily ?learner-centred? educational ethos but is also based on small- and large-group teaching, discussion and debate ? ultimately incorporating a range of opinions that break the barriers of time and geography.

The Dearing Committee report also expressed concern that a growing number of qualified professionals (as well as potential employers) are frustrated because they have discovered that their vocational training has limited them to certain skill-specific employment prospects, leaving many career paths unexplored. Prospective and current students reading for the English Degree, however, can take a confident place within the ?learning society? in the knowledge that the skills they will carry as graduates are of primary importance in any workplace. Moreover, for those who are inclined to believe that there is more to human experience than the exchange of goods and services for commercial profit, the English Degree offers a life less ordinary for students past, present and future.

The English Degree ? Pursuing a Life Less Ordinary 8.6 of 10 on the basis of 1613 Review.