The news that Sheffield Hallam has dropped its English literature course sadly came as no surprise, says Melanie Phillips in The Times. Back in “another, prehistoric era”, I read English at university. I figured it would equip me with little practical preparation for life, but with “everything that mattered”. As the 19th-century poet Matthew Arnold said, studying great works of literature is a vital part of a liberal education: exposure to “the best that has been thought and said” is an antidote to the materialism of the world, and teaches us to make the kind of moral judgements that are essential in a humane society.
But over the past 50 years this notion has been slowly “eaten away”, with education morphing from “moral elevation” to “brutal utilitarianism”. In 2003, Labour’s education secretary Charles Clarke asked why the state should fund the “medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars seeking truth”; higher education’s purpose, he said, was to boost the economy. Meanwhile, we’re battered by “ideologies aimed at upending Western society”, with academics teaching that Western culture consists “merely of the prejudices of other ages”. In his 1987 elegy to western civilisation, The Closing of the American Mind, the American philosopher Allan Bloom lamented that modern education has “impoverished the souls of today’s students”. So yes, Sheffield Hallam’s decision is cultural vandalism. “But the universities have already long vandalised themselves.”