Philip Hensher: English should not just be a subject for girls

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The Independent Online

I have often sat at the front of an undergraduate class in English literature and observed that the class is mainly, and sometimes overwhelmingly, female. Nobody apart from me ever seems to think this is at all odd. English literature as a subject, rather than a thing, has for years, and perhaps since its academic founding, been regarded as a female subject. And yet English literature as a thing, rather than a subject, is overwhelmingly written by men, and before the 19th century almost exclusively so.

Why should men be happy to write a literature and then subsequently regard it as a subject for women? I thought this was just one of those odd little paradoxes confined to the study of English literature. But the decline of masculine participation in education at all levels is starting to alarm policy-makers, and fingers are being pointed.

Women's participation in higher education has reached 49.2 per cent, virtually at the government's target of 50 per cent, while men's is only at 37.8 per cent. Now, I don't believe that anything much is served by inappropriate people going into higher education, and 37.8 per cent may well be closer to a sustainable figure for participation. But boys consistently perform worse than girls at school, too, and have done so since the introduction of the GCSE.

All this has been pointed out by a report issued by the Higher Education Policy Institute. Its director, Bahram Bekhradnia, has written despairingly of comments made on this disparity by educational professionals. One said, in his hearing, that the disparity didn't matter and concern about it sprang from the fact that "it is seen as a threat to masculinity. It is a moral panic."

Another said that the difference is "an evolving realisation of the nuances of gender's effects," or in other words, that we now understand that men are really more stupid than women.

The emergence of able women through a new educational regime is to be welcomed. But the Higher Education Policy Institute has, surely rightly, suggested that men are being actively disadvantaged through a shift in emphasis on to discursiveness, empathy, speculation and all the other areas in which women traditionally do well, and away from the kind of fact-acquisition and analysis where men excel. This is the case even in areas like science and foreign languages, where some sort of systemic learning ought, surely, to be the basis.

And sometimes, the bias is actively shocking. One well-known published guide to GCSE English literature provides, without seeing how grotesque it is, a sample answer to an exercise in "writing to argue, persuade, and advise", on the question: "Write a persuasive article for a teenage fashion magazine about whether following fashion is important."

No wonder boys give up, sent such clear messages that the subject – that education as a whole – is not for them. They are never introduced to the wonderful masculine literary worlds of violence, murder, survival-on-a-desert-island, catapult and raft-construction (thank you, Bevis), spying, sadism and thuggish adventure. If every time one class was given I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, another one was given that much better written and more interesting book, Greenmantle, we might start to get somewhere. If every time a GCSE candidate was asked to say why following fashion was important, another one was asked how they would carry out the perfect murder, boys might start to show an interest in a subject rightfully theirs as much as their sisters'.

If English literature passed permanently into the study and practice of women, it wouldn't be the end of the world. But the disparity in achievement in education as a whole is a complete catastrophe. It really can't continue like this.

I hear 'Lulu' and suddenly I'm 14 again

Thirty years since Alban Berg's Lulu was unveiled, in its totality, to an admiring world! I can hardly believe it. I bought the famous, wonderful Boulez recording of that first Paris performance as soon as it came out, and played it almost into the ground (I just put the first LP on to the turntable, and that wonderful palindromic interlude came out in a riot of hiss and click, and that incomparable demented orchestral fury only emerging from behind a dense curtain of extraneous sound).

I propose to spend this year travelling around Europe, seeing as many of the rush of 30th anniversary productions of this greatest of 20th-century operas as I possibly can, starting with the new one at Covent Garden with Agneta Eichenholz, pictured, as Lulu. Most people of my age, I know, reminisce about 10cc or the Stranglers or the Sex Pistols.

Me, I don't really care what you think if I tell you that all I have to do to transport myself to the age of 14, and to the back bedroom of my parents' house in 1979, is to put on a crackly old record, and there is Teresa Stratas standing over the prostrate Dr Schoen, and bringing down the curtain after the second scene on the words " Sie heiraten mich ja doch ..."

Not all pleasures are universal, and I know only a handful of people who share that exact feeling. But I feel lucky to have had this noise in my head for so long.

Are things in Downing Street this desperate?

Sir Alan Sugar is an odd enough choice as a new government minister for enterprise – remember, he's the man who turned a virtual monopoly of the UK home computer business in the 1980s into very little 15 years later. But I hear we've had, for the moment, a narrow escape from something still more bizarre.

According to a story doing the Whitehall rounds, 10 Downing Street was discreetly exploring alternatives to the lovely, fragrant Lady Scotland as Attorney General should she suddenly discover the need to spend more time with her family. At the other end of the phone, the obvious names came to an end. The Prime Minister's sidekick grew restive. "Come on, come on," he said. "We want you to think completely outside the box on this one. Do you want me to give you names? All right then. Does Esther Rantzen have a law degree?"