Working-class writers, will they exist in ten years?
In a recent phone call with my parents, my mum, who knows I am hoping to qualify to teach English (either at high school or college) warned me of plans to drop English Literature from the curriculum. Sadly, such moves are unsurprising. In our Neo-Liberal/Late-Capitalist world, people’s choices (or at least those without privileged backgrounds) are focused on what creates profit for corporations. This decision may have the added benefit, for those intent on widening the gap between the rich and poor[i], of further limiting access to higher education. This year, the Conservative government decided to ‘end funding for degrees where less than 40% of graduates find “highly skilled” employment within six months’, pushing students towards STEM and business-orientated subjects[ii].
As an author, working a low-paying, low-skilled service job to make ends meet, I realise that it is only a tiny number of people working in the arts who make a living wage. Perhaps this is why applications for English Literature degrees have fallen to such an extent that Sheffield Hallam University stopped offering them this year[iii]. ‘This year, the Office for Students set out plans to remove funding for “low quality” courses, defined as those where less than 60% of participants go into good jobs or further study soon after graduating.’[iv] And yet the Arts and Entertainment industry is one of the few industries still booming in the UK[v].
English Literature became a subject to be studied at university in 1831 with the opening of Kings College, London. George Gordon, an early professor of English Literature, suggested that English literature was necessary for social stability: ‘Churches […] having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State’[vi]. Is it possible that the move away from English Literature as a method of social control is connected to attempts, since 2017, to decolonise the canon? I cannot find evidence online to prove this, but I feel this may be part of the truth, and (as happened in the 1980’s) the Conservative Government are pulled in two opposing ideological directions. What this will mean for the working-class intellectual writer of the future remains to be seen, but if primary and secondary education follow the trend being set by higher education, I may need to rethink my career options and focus my dreams on writing rather than teaching. I believe working-class voices are vital to a healthy society, and I would love to be one of those voices.
[i] Over the past 58 years, income inequality has increased from 26.1% in 1961 to 35.2% in 2019. This worsened during the pandemic, and now the richest 0.1 per cent of households have as much combined wealth as the poorest half of all households. Source - Equality Trust, 2022, https://equalitytrust.org.uk/scale-economic-inequality-uk). [ii] The Guardian, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jul/01/it-will-always-have-value-readers-on-whether-english-lit-is-worthwhile [iii] The Guardian, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/29/the-guardian-view-on-arts-and-humanities-under-threat-on-campus [iv] The Guardian, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/29/the-guardian-view-on-arts-and-humanities-under-threat-on-campus [v] PwC, 2021, https://www.pwc.co.uk/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/insights/entertainment-media-outlook.html [vi] Eagleton, T. (1990) ‘Literature and the rise of English’ in Walder, D. (ed.) Literature in the Modern World. Oxford: The Oxford University, pp. 26-27.