No book or play or poem has a god-given right to be studied at university. Change is normal: it reflects shifts in the wider intellectual culture and the individual preferences of an intelligent and well-qualified academic. One year a student may study Dorothy Richardson’s sequence of modernist novels Pilgrimage, the next she may focus on the brilliance in miniature of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. The study of the humanities is never fixed, and nor should it be.
Over the past few years, though, there seems to have been more than the normal rate of exchange. The academic study of literature is threatened. Last year, Leicester University said it would no longer offer a medieval module as part of its English undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. In June, Sheffield Hallam University announced it was planning to suspend its standalone English literature degree. Last month, the University of Roehampton declared it would no longer teach classics.
The reasons that universities give for such decisions are often financial: that teaching these subjects is a drain on resources and, in any case, these degrees don’t put graduates into high-paying jobs.
The natural response to this reasoning would be the traditional humanist one: the study of literature should be its own reward, and should not be subordinated to anything else. Great works of art have an intrinsic value. But many of those one might expect to loudly make this defence have either stayed silent or actively acquiesced with another assault on the humanities by pathologising works of literature into “safe” and “unsafe”; by invoking the language of decolonisation to treat literature as a subset of politics.
This week we had further examples. According to a Times investigation, at least ten universities have now removed or made various texts optional on the basis of whether they could be harmful to students. Two titles have been removed completely. Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award, has been permanently removed from a reading list by Essex University because of its violent depiction of slavery. August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie, meanwhile, has been temporarily removed from an English literature module at Sussex University because it includes a discussion of suicide.
Some have argued that because the 300 Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Times uncovered only two banned titles, there is no issue. But it does matter that literary works are increasingly being treated like food in a restaurant, their value reduced to whether they provide the right nutrients and avoid the bad ones: as though too much violence or too much discussion of uncomfortable topics makes a book bad for the mind, just as too much fat damages the body.
This type of reasoning also expresses itself in more innocuous forms. Is this book inclusive enough? Does this book have the same attitude to race as an 18-year-old British person studying English at university in 2022? Are we eating our greens?
The Times investigation also found over 1,000 examples of trigger warnings – notes warning that a text might be distressing or upsetting to some readers – across undergraduate courses. The authors branded with trigger warnings included Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. Of course, universities should be sensitive to the welfare of their students. But there are better ways to do that than this crude and condescending approach to reading.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is an offensive novella. Some readers may even find it harmful. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” in a 1975 lecture entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”. Conrad, according to Achebe, had presented the African as an inscrutable other, a blank canvas devoid of humanity.
Still, I don’t regret studying Heart of Darkness in my first year of university. Achebe’s critique is powerful, but partial. The more terrifying offensiveness of Conrad’s work lies on his savage indictment of all of humanity; his revelation that civilisation is more vulnerable than we like to assume it is. But whether or not it is offensive, whether or not it is safe, the reason I read it with great reward was that it had me hooked – artistically, emotionally and spiritually. And that, ultimately, is how literature should be valued.
[See also: The 15 best books for summer 2022]