For a variety of reasons I won’t go into, I did not do Latin at my grammar school. People would say when they knew “What relevance today is Latin anyway, a dead language!”. Some would retort, “It is useful for medicine”-or whatever. Now I am deeply sorry I did not do Latin at school. It is true that had I strong enough motivation I should have found an opportunity in my later years. But you know how it is-there is so much else to do. So I have never learned Latin-and something important is missing from my education!
I was reminded of all this when I read in the newspapers that Leicester University had dropped Chaucer and the earlier Beowulf ,indeed all English literature prior to 1500. Since the fact universities have been quietly dropping their responsibility to teach the literature of the past has been going on for a long time I was somewhat surprised -and pleased- that this particular matter had reached the press. At least it was being dealt with as of serious concern to readers.
The Leicester response to criticism has been that it has so much to offer the students in job- directed courses that there was no place for the more ancient literature. What are these more relevant courses? They are to deal with issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality, diversity, post-colonialism. Issues such as these are central to the modern world-so the discourse goes. These courses are popular. The Arts are in decline. University economics determines students should be treated as customers. It is a matter of supplying demand in a failing market. That’s how education today is looked after by the Authorities in the English- speaking West.
We do not- or should not- go to university merely to read what we have learned, or been indoctrinated to believe, to be relevant. We should not go to confirm the significance of what we want to know. There are piles of books in any bookshop with so-called “challenging ” views on “race, sexuality, diversity” etc. Students can find out about these at their leisure over a lifetime -or until the fashion changes. What they tend not do, however, is go to books that on the face of it may seem obscure and distant-like Chaucer- unless they are encouraged to read beyond their immediate concerns and ideas of relevance. For , if we are simply not going to be mouthers-of- fashionable concepts, we need at university stage to stretch ourselves to find why it is Chaucer, as a very great poet of human nature, and also a critical starting point to the understanding of English Literature (among others) might be important for us to learn to read.
As Rory Waterman puts it in an article on the subject (“Geoffrey Chaucer: A Victim of the University Drive” ) in Unherd:
When you study this fascinating subject (ie. medieval literature), you learn all about the formation of this country , its language, the ways in which people thought and felt. You look down a well, you didn’t really kmow was there and you see a reflection that isn’t quite yours. And then you’ll come back to that, all the time, in ways you did not expect.
That is you will experience what education really is!