Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode's words are unminced. Universities, he says, "are being driven by madmen". And education in general "is being run by lunatics".(via The Page)
The recent A-level and GCSE statistics, I point out, would indicate that at one level, at least, his subject is increasingly popular. "Well," he replies, "I don't know what they call 'English' now. I can understand the attractiveness of it. But I don't hold the view that reading English is a soft option, or at least it shouldn't be. It should be a severe option, restricted to those people who are qualified to do it. I've been out of touch with student life for a long time. But I don't believe that many people nowadays get many visible benefits from studying English. It doesn't do them any harm, of course."
Is he suggesting that English should be re-engineered to be more in line with currently unpopular "hard" subjects - like physics? "Yes. I discovered just today, for example, that it's no longer compulsory at GCSE to take a foreign language. This seems to me to be a monstrous decision." [...]
"Looking back at the study of English in universities over the years the first thing that occurs to me is how very important the subject once seemed. In America the New Criticism - a school led by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - argued that the close study of poetry was a supremely valuable thing. This was a view that was then accepted generally. And the leading academic literary critics were, in those days, very famous people.
"Think, for example, of Northrop Frye. Frye's is now a name that you never hear mentioned but which was then everywhere. CS Lewis, who is now famous for fairy stories, was then famous for being a scholar. Tolkien too was famous for being a scholar, not for elves and so on. There is no prestige associated any longer with being a good critic. There are people writing now who seem to me likely to be as good as those critics I've been mentioning but they won't be as famous nor as influential. There's some very good scholarship in the subject still going on. There's also an immense amount of rubbish."
01 September 2006
More on the state of things
Frank Kermode on English studies: