Let's lose the plot

A-level English doesn't prepare you for a degree. But changes are afoot.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ENGLISH, ACCORDING to Ucas figures, is by far the most popular arts subject at university. This year, there were 50,302 applicants. Yet, in nearly every higher education institution, a huge majority of new English students will be baffled by courses with titles such as "literary theory" or "critical theory".

"Why are we doing this?" is a common question among first years. It's not so much the content but the very existence of such a course that is so baffling. Their experience of A-level hasn't led them to expect a course like this. In turn, this means that the jump from A-level to university English is more than just the normal step up in academic requirements: it's like starting a whole new different subject.

The reason for their confusion reveals deep divisions in the subject of English itself. Twenty years ago, in a big bookshop, you would have found shelves of novels, poems and plays and a section called "literary criticism" containing studies on writers and their work. Today, you will also find a relatively new section called "literary theory" with books on such matters as "feminism" and "postmodernism" and it is this which has divided the teachers of English.

As with any academic debate, the groups on either side have been caricatured. On one side, the "theorists" are portrayed as obscuring literature with layers of incomprehensible gobbledegook. They are represented as following the latest intellectual fad from Paris or the United States. The "traditionalists", on the other side, are portrayed as fussy, out of date and out of touch, interested in defending an irrelevant canon of great white male English writers. Pointlessly noting allusions to the Classics in the work of minor Renaissance playwrights, "traditionalists" are depicted as keeping alive a form of dry overly-pedantic scholarship.

As with all stereotypes, these are ludicrous generalisations but they do reveal a sea change in the subject. English now looks at areas such as the effects of post-colonialism and globalisation, as well as writing by women and the philosophy of literature. Students discuss more issues than just "literary greatness" and essays cover a wider range than the A-level trinity of "character, plot, theme".

More important, the pre-suppositions behind any way of interpreting a work of literature are being questioned. (And it may be this that causes unrest among "traditionalists"). English today at university is as much about how we read as what we read.

But these changes have not filtered down to A and AS level yet. This is why so many students are baffled: A-level fails to prepare many of them for thinking about how they read and it fails to even introduce them to the spectrum of ideas which makes up English in higher education.

For example, for 50 years or so there has been a "theoretical" debate over how much the intention of the author matters in working out the meaning of a literary work. Despite the importance of this, and the fact that it's relatively simple to teach, many A-level students simply have no idea that such a debate has been going on.

Again, although most students can offer feminist critiques of, say, TV's Ally McBeal, many of them know nothing about feminist approaches to literature. Worst of all, most first-year students seem to have no idea that there might be more than one interpretation of a text. This is especially irritating because they know from experience (watching Ally McBeal and arguing about it with friends) that there is more than one way of looking at any text. But the A-level mill has drummed this out of them.

Changes in the A and AS curriculum are afoot. Many teachers know how important and interesting these new approaches are. More teachers are coming through having studied the broader issues that "theory" raises. The new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidelines and new syllabuses tread carefully between "traditionalist" and "theoretical" camps and offer room for more stimulating approaches.

The writer is a Lecturer in English at Royal Holloway College, University of London. His book, 'Doing English: a guide for literature students', is published this week by Routledge at pounds 8.99