ENGLISH, ACCORDING to Ucas figures, is by far the most popular arts subject at university. This year, there were 50,302 applicants. Yet, in nearly every higher education institution, a huge majority of new English students will be baffled by courses with titles such as "literary theory" or "critical theory".
"Why are we doing this?" is a common question among first years. It's not so much the content but the very existence of such a course that is so baffling. Their experience of A-level hasn't led them to expect a course like this. In turn, this means that the jump from A- level to university English is more than just the normal step up in academic requirements: it's like starting a whole new different subject.
The reason for their confusion reveals deep divisions in the subject of English itself. Twenty years ago, in a big bookshop, you would have found shelves of novels, poems and plays and a section called "literary criticism" containing studies on writers and their work. Today, you will also find a relatively new section called "literary theory" with books on such matters as "feminism" and "postmodernism" and it is this which has divided the teachers of English.
As with any academic debate, the groups on either side have been caricatured. On one side, the "theorists" are portrayed as obscuring literature with layers of incomprehensible gobbledegook. They are represented as following the latest intellectual fad from Paris or the United States. The "traditionalists", on the other side, are portrayed as fussy, out of date and out of touch, interested in defending an irrelevant canon of great white male English writers. Pointlessly noting allusions to the Classics in the work of minor Renaissance playwrights, "traditionalists" are depicted as keeping alive a form of dry overly-pedantic scholarship.
As with all stereotypes, these are ludicrous generalisations but they do reveal a sea change in the subject. English now looks at areas such as the effects of post-colonialism and globalisation, as well as writing by women and the philosophy of literature. Students discuss more issues than just "literary greatness" and essays cover a wider range than the A-level trinity of "character, plot, theme". …