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6 July 2022

Since when is the point of an English degree getting a “highly skilled” job?

This government’s Gradgrindist education policies seem like a deliberate assault on independent thought.

By Nicholas Lezard

I am now going to give a massive plug for a book. It is called Literature and the Critics: Developing Responses to Texts by Richard Jacobs and it is published by Routledge and costs a rather stiff £24.99 from Am*z*n in paperback (you don’t want to know what the hardback costs). I got a free copy because Richard Jacobs was my Inspirational English Teacher at school and I asked for one.

It’s designed for students doing a degree in Eng lit, so there’s quite a bit of “in the next chapter we’ll” and “we’ll return to this book later”. But the main thing about this book is that, in covering English literature from Shakespeare to postmodernism, it manages to make the subject sound both entertaining and important; the study of literature being a way of understanding the world and the mind – and also, by extension, as a kind of dissolving agent through which we can see the hypocrisies and motives of a malign state. And it is also hugely readable. Forty-five years ago Jacobs, then an absurdly young but gifted teacher, set me on this road, and I will be forever grateful to him for that.

[See also: For the first time in my professional life, I am defeated by a book]

I wouldn’t mention this book at all had I not woken up to the news – which may be old news for all I know – that apparently the government has decided to withhold funding for university courses in which 60 per cent of graduates are not in “highly skilled” jobs six months after leaving university. The latest university to suspend English literature as a standalone degree is Sheffield Hallam.

Naturally, I thought a little bit about my own circumstances when I read this; then I thought about those of my children. I graduated with a perfectly respectable degree in English and spent a year stinking up the family home before getting a job as a blurb-writer for the Folio Society, where I met the woman who was to become the mother of my children. I left because I wanted to use the word “merkin” in a promotional leaflet and the managing director, who at that time was, by an amazing coincidence, the chairman’s son, didn’t. I suppose blurb-writing is a skill of a sort, but still: a year.

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My children, who, reading from left to right, have degrees in philosophy, film-making and mathematics, two of them with firsts (from what I have always gathered since I looked into it, it is impossible to get a first in philosophy without being an actual genius). The one with the philosophy degree eventually got a job as a sushi chef and then, a few years after graduating, taught herself to code. The others are still knocking around in the gig economy, and they’ve been graduates for much longer than six months.

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Jeffrey Bernard, the spiritual godfather of this column, once told me that English degrees were pointless because anyone can read a book and have a valid or even valuable opinion, and he had a point – but then not everyone can be as naturally intelligent as him. I certainly needed to be led in the direction of righteousness by the teachers I had, and what you end up with is not just an appreciation of good writing but also, ideally, a good training in bullshit detection.

My children do not have any degrees in English but they are good at spotting nonsense when they see it. I went up to London for the youngest’s birthday and we sat in various pubs by the river and had a great time. Of course, I worry about their prospects in life. “If you apply yourselves, you can be as successful and as fulfilled as me.” Prudently, I do not say this out loud. Nor do I even think it, except as a joke. Instead, I arm-wrestle with my daughter, who can lift 100 kilos deadweight or something, and we have a thrilling draw with the right arm and thank goodness I win with the left, for some reason. We drink an awful lot of beer and when we get back to the family home we drink rather a lot of wine. The apples do not roll terribly far from the tree.

But I keep returning to education, and the point of it. Milton is quoted to great effect by Jacobs: schools and academies should teach “all liberal arts… [which] would soon make the whole nation more ingenious at home [and] more honourable abroad”. The ideal government “aims most to make the people flourishing, virtuous, noble and free-spirited”. A bad government keeps the people “softest, basest, servilest, easiest to be kept under… in mind also sheepishest.”

I think again of this government’s Gradgrindist policies, and its denial of funding to courses that do not achieve almost immediate results, and the way it is making the experience of learning and teaching English as miserable as possible by drumming phrases like “fronted adverbials” into the heads of six-year-olds, and I wonder if this is a deliberate assault on the principles and building blocks of independent thought.

And I think of the front bench, and see a line of mindless, ignorant, illiterate, malevolent, amoral, smirking, winking cretins, and I realise that, yes, they do want to remake the entire populace in their own image. To quote Wordsworth: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee: she is a fen.”

[See also: The Brixton where I once sought hash and Red Stripe has gone missing]

This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson