15 May 2023

Politics and the decline of English Literature: why a vital subject is on the slide


The study of English Literature appears to be in terminal decline. Between 2011 and 2021 the number of students studying the subject at university fell by a third, and between 2021 and 2022 A level numbers fell by 8.9%. What was once one of the most popular A levels in the country will no longer be in the top ten next year.

A decline in popularity on this scale in any subject should be a concern to anyone who works in secondary or higher education, but for it to be in a subject which lies right at the core of our national identity, it is particularly depressing. As James Marriott wrote in The Times on Saturday:

The decline in English literature is most shocking because the subject was so prestigious for so long and because literature is so central to Britain’s cultural self-image. If the British genius has expressed itself comparatively rarely in the arts of musical composition or painting, we are able to boast perhaps the richest literary tradition in the world as the land of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens. Now we face not only a crisis of arts education but of cultural identity. What is a Britain in which nobody reads Shakespeare or Dickens?

How have we arrived at this point? Well, there are a number of factors, all of which have conspired to risk confining the subject – like Ancient Greek and Latin – to independent schools whose pupils have the life choices of taking subjects which don’t have obvious career paths linked to them. Perhaps a more interesting question is: does it actually matter? Do students need to know about Austen’s use of irony in Pride and Prejudice or Milton’s use of symbolism in Book IV of Paradise Lost?

Establishing why English is shrinking to a subject smaller than Media Studies is a relatively easy task. Firstly, compared to when I studied the subject a few decades ago, Sixth Formers have far more subjects to choose from. In the past, if you were interested in man’s ‘buried life English Literature offered you the chance to explore the conscious and unconscious lives of others. Now, you are more likely to study Psychology (which has over twice the number of students studying it at A level), or Sociology (which is also significantly more popular than English Literature). For many young people English is no longer relevant: it is a subject that is too preoccupied with societies and individuals they no longer recognise. 

This is, in many ways, compounded by teachers and lecturers who see themselves as political activists first, and English teachers second. For many English teachers who tweet about the subject, teaching ‘texts’ is a process that aids social change. In many ways the subject has long been political, and left-leaning: An Inspector Calls is as immovable a part of the GCSE syllabus as Shakespeare, and it is so because it is, fundamentally, a socialist text with a reformist view of society.

Recent changes to the GCSE curriculum by the exam boards, done to be more ‘inclusive’, are also political actions. The quality of the writers included in the new specifications are inferior to those they have replaced: they are there because of who they are, not because of what they have written. Such actions, endorsed by many teachers, effectively reduces the study of literature to something secondary: pupils are forced to see the subject through a political lens, rather than something of innate value (and beauty).

This deterioration in the quality of the writers on offer to young people has been a long, slow but intentional process by the examination boards, but it has faced little or no opposition from the Department of Education. Indeed, things have got worse, with the indifference of previous Secretaries of State hardening into outright opposition to vaguely-termed ‘low value’ degrees. Reducing a degree to the bottom line is reductive and utilitarian, but it adds to the sense that anything which is not clearly preparation for a well-paid job is, in every sense, worthless.

And this becomes self-perpetuating as the subject itself is hollowed out of valuable content: long gone are the days when Sixth Formers would be taught Middlemarch, or The Portrait of a Lady. Now it is possible to study the World War One and its legacy without reading Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. You could, however, study Ben Elton’s seminal text on the conflict, The First Casualty, or watch episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth.

If those who are in charge of putting together courses for our students are themselves philistines who at best have little knowledge of the subject or, at worst, hate it for being traditionally made up of too many dead white men (and women), why should any teenager opt for it? Such trends, evident now at GCSE and A level, are more deeply felt in English Departments in university campuses, and students are voting with their feet, with the result that departments are being closed with increasing frequency.

It’s hard to feel sorry for those lecturers who have done so much to undermine the subject being told they’re no longer needed to teach a subject they clearly find ‘problematic’. When decline of this magnitude is so entrenched the future looks bleak: fewer English graduates will mean fewer English teachers, which will mean GCSE and A level English Literature being dropped in schools, and English Language GCSE being taught by anyone who can read and write.

Does this matter? Well, speaking as an English teacher, you won’t be surprised to say that I think it does. A country that no longer values its writers or, worse, despises them for who they were and when they lived, has lost a sense of its own self. Our words bind us to each other, both in the present, and to the past. Studying English Literature is innately valuable: the plays of Shakespeare, Hardy’s novels, Keats’s poems, George Eliot’s acute social observations, remain as valuable and beautiful now as they ever were.

The difference is that those who have mistakenly been put in charge of protecting and promoting them too often do not love these writers, or understand why they have universal appeal that transcend time, race or gender. We need new custodians of English, at government, school and university levels. And instead of decolonising the curriculum we should de-politicise the subject, and rid it of a mission forced on it by others to reduce it to something radical. The imagination it helps young people develop is radical enough.

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Dr David James is Deputy Head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.