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What is a Britain in which nobody reads Shakespeare?

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989)

Something is happening to the humanities, says James Marriott in The Times. When I left school a decade ago, English was the most popular A-level. “Today it is no longer in the top 10.” Over the same period, the number of students signing up to study the subject as undergraduates has fallen by around a third. A cultural education was once held to be “spiritually, morally and even politically improving”. In his book The Liberal Imagination, the American critic Lionel Trilling argued that reading cultivated a sympathy for the individual that was “essential to the flourishing of a liberal society”. Literature, he wrote, “is the human activity that takes fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty”. Its loss would be an existential threat to experiences “among the most profound available to human beings”.

The decline of English is shocking because the subject was so prestigious for so long, and because literature is “so central to Britain’s cultural self-image”. The British genius might have expressed itself “comparatively rarely” in musical composition or painting, say, but with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens we have arguably “the richest literary tradition in the world”. Today’s students can no longer see the “spiritual or moral virtues of the humanities”; they’re more interested in commercially valuable “transferrable skills”. We should be careful – a country in which only a tiny elite can understand literature would be a “poorer and sadder” place. “What is a Britain in which nobody reads Shakespeare or Dickens?”