I used to write reviews of LibriVox recordings on another blog, called Readear. I did this to thank LibriVox for its awesome collection of free books, but the blog seems to have ended up being used by university students who are after quick plot summaries of classic books. And if I have ever made a semi-insightful remark about one of the books, you can be sure it has been popping up in essays over the last couple of years.
A post which seems to get a lot of traffic is a brief review of Balzac’s Sarrasine. As this story has a surprise ending, which would be ruined if you even know to expect a surprise ending, I have considerately (so I thought) not given very much away in my review. This reticence on my part, however, provoked a couple of rather harsh comments. Such as:
if you’re going to do a summary do so otherwise you will reinforce point 1: that you’re an idiot.
I read this with a great deal of amusement. I find irony, especially unintended irony, very funny, and I cannot think of anything more ironic. Here is a student, in the midst of a blessed period in his life when he can devote his entire self to the joy of learning and the acquisition of new knowledge, who, when called upon to read a work which would take about 40 minutes to complete, chooses instead to search for an online summary. When this fails, he takes the time to call the only person he can find who has read the work, (but who has failed to provide him with a summary), an idiot.
If I am an idiot, I thought, then what is he?
I was reminded of all this because of the fierce debate going on in my country at the moment concerning University tuition fees. Students are being called upon to contribute a great deal more to their education than they once were. A generation ago, students were given grants which meant university education was free. I missed out on all this; I returned to the UK from South Africa at the age of 18 to be told that I was not eligible for a grant due to my long years abroad. So, instead, I drifted through several jobs, until I was manning a box office, and being an usher, at a theatre in Manchester. As luck would have it, the theatre was attached to one of the great universities in England, and the productions often attracted students who were studying the plays depicted. So I came to see this breed of grant-equipped students at close quarters and came to hate them with a burning passion.
You might accuse me of jealousy. These people were living a life I would have killed for. You would be right. I was – am – jealous. But I still found their behaviour baffling. People who had chosen to study English literature for three years would come to see a production of Romeo and Juliet, and spend the entire performance in the bar, complaining about the size of their grant. Meanwhile, I, a despised and lowly usher, sat through all of the 72 performances, and fell hopelessly in love with Shakespeare.
I think the problem is that the purpose of these people’s degrees was never made clear to them. In reality, all they were doing was taking three years to qualify for a passport to the middle classes. Get a middling degree in any humanity subject, and get a safe berth in an office job, well away from the oily shop floors, and never have to think about boring old Shakespeare again.
It strikes me that this use of the humanities – as a self-selecting means of class segregation – is of no service to these sorts of students, and is of even less service to the humanities.
As a result of this kind of education, writers like Shakespeare have been given an aura of academic reverence. He is only to be approached via a priesthood with privileged access to his holy secrets.
In reality, Shakespeare wrote plays for everyone, to fill his theatres. He needed to make a buck. He wrote ghastly puns, packed his plays with sexual innuendo, fart gags, and gratuitous violence. He also changed the English language into something completely new, by breaking each and every grammatical and stylistic rule you can think of. Before him, English was like a box accordion; when he was finished it was a symphony orchestra.
But the important point is this: his legacy is a gift to every single speaker of the English language. Treating him like a middle class rite of passage is a crime against our culture. It devalues his plays to the level of drudgery for drones, and turns something that should unite us into something that divides us.
Perhaps I sound idealistic and impractical. I disagree. If I had asked an average English student what use they wish to get from their degree, I would have got a confused look. Only Medical students, engineering students and so on, seemed to be expected to have a practical purpose to their education.
The United Kingdom makes a great deal more money from our language than from any other source. It is our greatest export, and our culture remains our greatest asset. And as an asset it is worth more for everyone if we remember that the best of it was intended for everyone.
Should our students be required – eventually – to pay for their university education? Perhaps. I don’t know. What I do know is that only people who really care about the humanities should study them. Because, most often, people who genuinely care about something want to share it, not use it a means to appear superior.