by Rory Waterman
Friday, 22
January 2021
Behind the news

Geoffrey Chaucer: a victim of the university diversity drive?

by Rory Waterman
Look at all those delightful medieval tomes. DPA DEUTSCHE PRESS-AGENTUR/DPA/PA Images

A few days ago, management told the English department at the University of Leicester that they’d no longer be teaching Geoffrey Chaucer — or any medieval literature for that matter. In response, an English lecturer at the university tweeted: ‘Leicester yesterday announced redundancy consultation with specific plans to … cease teaching medieval areas, and reduce early modern. You can probably imagine how I feel.’

I can. But I think we should all feel something similar.

This academic also tweeted a screenshot of the university’s rationale: to ‘strengthen English’, and provide room for ‘modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules’. My eyes nearly fell out at this — because I know Leicester already has these things covered, robustly and fruitfully.

I spent six years there studying two degrees, briefly taught in the department, and still have friends among the staff. Learn to read through this rhetoric, and quickly, because it exemplifies a phenomenon we will see repeated widely: an organisation using the language of Social Justice, and the cultural capital it brings, to dampen dissent.

Yes, I am sad for the staff, but what about the students? The English department at Leicester impressed me when I studied there, but it impresses me even more now I am an academic. It is heterodox where it should be, and dynamic. And undergrads are given an unusually comprehensive education. You can’t study English at Leicester and miss any major period or movement in the nation’s diverse literature. This isn’t common, trust me. And then most students go and get good jobs — their ‘prospects’ are in the top third nationwide for the subject.

How wonderfully anti-elitist — or ‘elite without being elitist’, as the university’s former marketing slogan put it. Leicester isn’t a Russell Group university and isn’t full of rich, privately-educated students, and the vast majority of universities ‘like’ Leicester don’t teach medieval literature, or at least not really.

When you study this fascinating subject, 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 know 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 didn’t expect.

Leicester offered this to me — an initially listless state school kid from a council house, who had potential but not much else — but has now decided that it doesn’t want to give similar students such opportunities, and has done so in the name of ‘diversity’.

Universities have very serious obligations to provide employability opportunities for students. But students at those universities traditionally regarded as our very ‘best’ won’t be taking many of them — they’ll be learning about the subjects they have signed up to study.

The skills they learn by doing so will set them further apart from the mainly state-educated students at places like Leicester, who in future won’t get the rich education they once could’ve had — unless such universities are careful. You don’t strike a balance with an axe.

Join the discussion

  • When I was at university I was taught to question everything. I try to do that by reading books and articles which I don’t agree with to try to get both sides of a story. So removing something from a curriculum cuts against this idea of having an open mind. (I find Chaucer tedious but it is not a reason to ban it.)

    I think on UnHerd that people with closed minds hide behind jargon and they are unable to explain their stance in normal English – to me the test of a theory is to persuade a non-believer, not just to keep repeating the theory. Of course, the jargon eliminates the critics who just can’t be bothered to learn a new language. Also the jargon eliminates people of a different age group who use different jargon.

  • Ironically, the “question everything” generation of students has become the “question nothing we tell you” generation of people running things.

  • “Decolonising the curriculum” is merely an excuse; the ideological assumption really in play here is the notion that the past has nothing to teach us. We should remember T.S. Eliot’s retort to this assumption: “Someone said: The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did. Precisely, and they are what we know.”

    We should remember too that the diversity of the 21st century, as defined in the usual terms, is a narrow thing compared to the diversity one meets if one seriously engages with the art of the past. It was studying literature and other art forms that truly made me understand the diversity of thought and feeling in the world and over time.

    People concerned with privilege, moreover, should remember that we all stand with reference to the past in a situation of chronological privilege. Indeed, Chesterton wrote that our ancestors were “the most obscure of all classes”.

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