by Rory Waterman
Friday, 22
January 2021
Behind the news
10:21

Geoffrey Chaucer: a victim of the university diversity drive?

My beloved old institution is not doing its students a service
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.


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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.

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Peter Ashby
Peter Ashby
2 years ago

This saddens me deeply. Despite being a scientist on a science course I added two first year papers in English in 1st year and even talked to my tutor about what an English degree would entail and was seriously tempted.

I first encountered Geoffrey Chaucer there and along with Gerard Manley Hopkins I hold that as a treasure from my time. Studying Chaucer does indeed give you an inkling of the origins of English. The degree would have given the opportunity to learn enough early Norse to read Beowulf in the original. Yes they went back that far.

The University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Ashby

Wow, Peter, that’s impressive! I don’t know anything of Chaucer except for the wonderful Procul Harum song, but I think it is sad that Chaucer would be eliminated from the curriculum too. A university curriculum should surely be able to contain both Geoffrey Chaucer and the Harlem Renaissance poets.

Eloise Burke
Eloise Burke
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Baldwin

I assume you refer to “..when.the miller told his tale,” in the Procul Harum song, and I hope that means you know what the song is about. I’ve puzzled over it at odd moments for 20 years, and if you can shed any light, please do.

Paul Booth
Paul Booth
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Ashby

Nicely put, Peter.

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Ashby

University of Otago, excellent seat of learning – my three nieces each studied there. They had the opportunity for a wide range of “taster” subjects in their first year, and were encouraged not to specialise too early on. Education was seen as an adventure – not a forced induction into neo-puritanical wokeism. I don’t know what it’s like now though, that was 7 to 12 years ago. I hope it’s not going down the same road.

hathayogawithchristinereed
hathayogawithchristinereed
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Ashby

Peter, Beowulf was written in Old English, Anglo-Saxon, not Old Norse, though the two languages were related. I did a London University degree in English and we studied studied Anglo-Saxon literature for three years.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago

I think he is saying, From early Norse through ( to Old English) Beowulf..

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
2 years ago

I actually teach Chaucer and other medieval literature to a diverse array of students at the college I work at. They enjoy it immensely if student evaluations are anything to go by. It would sadden me greatly if this period of literature was removed from the curriculum. Even in the textbooks I use I notice this corruption of history taking place. They’ve started to refer to the Middle Ages as the Antifeminist era.

One of Chaucer’s most human characters is the Wife of Bath, a controversial figure who goes a long way explaining the predicament of medieval women. It would be a great loss to many young minds if her Prologue and Tale were disappeared.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

John Dunne, the great Elizabethan poet..’Hope not for mind in woman; at their best Sweetness and wit, they’re but mummy possest’.

or as the new university curriculum puts is, XXXX XX XXX XXXX XX XXXXX; XX XXXXX XXXXXXXX XXX XXX, XXXXXXX XXX XXXXX XXXXXXX.*

* offensive and harmful parts redacted.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
2 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Perhaps you should have put a trigger warning before your unredacted quote!

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago
Reply to  Ralph Windsor

I should have! My Twitter account now locked for a week.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago

“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”.

George Lake
George Lake
2 years ago

I would have said that Cicero succinctly summed it up some time ago when he said:
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

Cicero shmicero. He’s just a dead white slave-owning white man.

George Lake
George Lake
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

So what?
Does that automatically invalidate his opinion?
Or is this a wind-up?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

It read like a wind-up to me.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago

In my opinion to read the Best you really cannot read de-colonized as the rest of the world did not really have that much to say, or to say it well.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Well, I don’t think I agree with that. In Japan, the Tale of Genji was a psychologically plausible realist novel written eight hundred years before such things existed in the West, and the haiku of Basho and Issa are as richly suggestive as any poetry written anywhere. I think (though I’m not an expert in them) that similar claims could be made about the Chinese and Persian literary traditions, at least.

My beef is not that people want to explore the literary traditions of non-Western cultures, but that, in stupid and self-defeating fashion, they want to do so at the expense of Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, etc, etc.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago

Sure, sure, Runi and all those, even Suleiman the Magnificent (Ottoman) was regarded as a world class poet, writing well on the utter loneliness of being the supreme leader (the norm in that time/place was to execute all nephews, brothers, sons other than the favorite, sons of all top leading men and so on because another surviving male of lineage meant civil war inevitably, so the male at the top was pretty lonely)

Sure, every civilization with writing had some good stuff – but they were minute in the quantity and scope of the Western ones. To be real, Western minds just have a genius for writing on human truths and philosophizing and irony and ‘what If’.

How about the engineering and technology school decolonizes? We could go back to bark and herbs for medicine, water wheels and hammer and anvil manufacturing studies. Same thing.

rorynolanwaterman8
rorynolanwaterman8
2 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

This is racist nonsense, I’m afraid, and has nothing to do with the matter at hand.

George Lake
George Lake
2 years ago

Could you please expand on that a bit?
It may not be “the matter at hand”, but an alternative would be appreciated.

rorynolanwaterman8
rorynolanwaterman8
2 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

I’ll quote: “Sure, every civilization with writing had some good stuff – but they were minute in the quantity and scope of the Western ones. To be real, Western minds just have a genius for writing on human truths and philosophizing and irony and ‘what If’.”

‘Western minds’? Well, for written pre-modern cultures alone, try China, Persia, Ja– I doubt I need to explain, and I also doubt the author of that post knows much about those or various other cultures because otherwise he/she would know it’s just not universally true. It’s also not relevant, because nobody is proposing swapping Chaucer, Beowulf, etc for premodern writers and writing from anywhere else.

It seems a dichotomy might have been intended with the study of postcolonial literature, though. If so, it is also a false one. Essentially, if they’d come for postcolonial literature instead, comparably strong arguments could’ve been made against that, and I would’ve been glad to make them. (I know the trend is the other way, but that isn’t my point in this reply.) And you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of postcolonial literary scholars in the UK do not support what Leicester seems to be doing at all.

Thanks for asking. I hope that explains my point.

rorynolanwaterman
rorynolanwaterman
2 years ago

I didn’t mean to post two similar replies. I thought the second one (which I wrote first) had been deleted by mistake before I’d posted it.

rorynolanwaterman
rorynolanwaterman
2 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

The ‘Westerm minds’ stuff.

rorynolanwaterman8
rorynolanwaterman8
2 years ago
Reply to  George Lake

I meant the ‘Western’ paragraph above. And my central point is the same as that in the first paragraph of Meghan’s post.

It isn’t ‘the matter in hand’ because nobody is proposing replacing Chaucer, Beowulf, etc with premodern equivalents from other parts of the world. And you probably won’t find any scholars of other world literatures, or postcolonialists, etc, who support what seems to be happening. Also, if cuts were being made in those areas, there would be similarly robust arguments against it. I would be among those making them.

Thanks for asking. I hope that clears up what I meant.

George Lake
George Lake
2 years ago

Yes perfectly, many thanks.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
2 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

I think you will find there are a number of other cultures with literary traditions that are as long and large.

It’s not the point though. The point is that if you went to Japan to study Japanese literature, you’d actually receive an education in the Japanese literary tradition. Which is exactly how it should be.

George Lake
George Lake
2 years ago

That expert knowledge of Japanese culture again.Bravo!

By the way don’t forget ‘The Metamorphoses of Apuleius’, which is the only complete Roman ‘novel’ to survive complete, and a rollicking good read to boot.
(But not for the faint hearted it must be said.)

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

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.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

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

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

To respond to your suggestion. I am now ploughing through the December issue of a magazine called Socialist Review. I am not doing this because I am a socialist but I do want to see what thousands of very clever people are talking about. As a sort of a Christmas party special they asked their correspondents a series of questions and one which caught my eye was, ‘Is the best way to get a socialist society through the PLP or through other routes.”
Just the question itself is interesting.

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Socialists “very clever people”?…I suppose so, but “clever” is not synonymous with “intelligent” and certainly not with “wise”.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

You are just not getting the point. Have you ever actually done anything other than talk about things?

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

My God! You really are full of yourself.
To paraphrase your chest-beating spiel:
“Here is what a man of my fine intelligence and education does. Compare and contrast that (if you dare) with the behaviour of those small-minded UnHerd commentators who just can’t be bothered to use their brains and simply repeat the same worn out theories. Let them take a leaf from my book ““ if they have what it takes”.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

By all of my criteria you must be right.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I hope you read books that enthrall and inspire you as well, spending all your time on other people’s opinions sounds much more tedious than Chaucer could ever be.

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

He’s probably one of those people who never reads fiction because it’s too frivolous. Personally, once I completed my MA I felt that I would rather drive a spike through my head than read anything other than fiction ever again. And reading anything (other than fiction) written by a socialist is like being boiled slowly in oil.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

I read fiction more than fact. I am retired and I have 15 hours a day to read. Unfortunately I won’t fit into your idea of a retiree.
Also, I don’t read trendy fiction .. discuss. I read my own style.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago

Do you remember Oscar Wilde in the Importance of being Earnest where the Aunt is describing her Novel she lost with the baby – ‘and in the end the guilty are punished, and the good rewarded, that is the meaning of Fiction…’

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
2 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

That’s exactly why people love it. I don’t know if anyone can really enjoy a novel if they don’t get at least somewhat personally involved in the story, or emotionally invested in the man character. I don’t continue reading a work of fiction if I don’t find anything to like about the main character about a third of the way in. What’s the point? Of course I’ve argued about this many times with people who insist that they love writers like Joyce or Faulkner, both of whom I find unreadable. I cheerfully admit my tastes, despite my graduate degree, run to middlebrow and genre fiction. I don’t read fiction to make myself smarter (or just feel smarter); that’s what nonfiction is for.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

That’s interesting. I did a degree in English. It cured me of the habit of reading for about 10 years and it has completely cured me of the habit of reading fiction.

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That’s a shame. My MA in English just cured me of the habit of reading incoherent postmodern drivel, but I still find “a good story well-told” one of the greatest pleasures in life. Even just a good story’s sometimes enough; i confess to a fondness for Dan Brown and freely admit he’s a terrible writer.

Robin BLAKE
Robin BLAKE
2 years ago

If this is true it is dreadful news from the city of Simon de Montfort and Richard III.

To claim to be making the curriculum more diverse while actually reducing it is Orwellian and I grieve for Leicester’s fine medievalists sacrificed on the altar of this twisted thinking.

To cease teaching Chaucer is especially regressive. The range of people and subjects that interested him was extraordinarily wide. He exposed the world and the society in which he lived with wit and clarity and we can all learn from him. The students at Leicester will now not even have the option.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Disgusting philistinism.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Just call it what it is, they hate White culture.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Yes, I agree.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

All part of the Woke thought control agenda.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Ralph Windsor

Yep.

Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
2 years ago

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.

That’s very nicely expressed.

(Especially compared to the ubiquitous activist jargon, which manages to be pious, leaden and empty at the same time.)

The development you describe is sad but also depressingly predictable, besides being rather unnecessary and dishonestly justified, according to other points the author makes.

Still, at least we can look forward to a better future when English literature students are knowledgeable about race, diversity and sexuality. That’s particularly important because these are subjects that are criminally overlooked at the moment.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Pete Kreff

Yesterday you explained to me all about the concept of irony, so I am prepared.
The fact that the article is lucid and is lacking in jargon is the correct way to sell it to other people. To all: do not hide behind jargon.

Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Hello again. I don’t think I explained the “concept of irony”, did I?

Or maybe you’re whooshing me. I sometimes find it hard to tell these days. I probably take myself too seriously.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Pete Kreff

Truly sorry – maybe it was someone else but you responded for me in the same thread.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
2 years ago

What I find interesting in this is that the choice is not being made by the English department but by the higher ups. When I was young it was accepted that the experts should decide what the curriculum was; now it seems the be the thought police.

opn
opn
2 years ago

That struck me too. What very learned men their deans must be to have the ability to make such decisions. Actually they are probably political scientists who have not got the guts to go into real politics because someone might disagree with them Рso much easier to bully a bunch of scholarly litt̩rateurs.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
2 years ago
Reply to  opn

You are almost certainly right. In any event, “political science” is not science.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
2 years ago

Worse than the thought police – it’s the administrators.

Steve Owen
Steve Owen
2 years ago

I am truly sorry to hear this.
I read some Chaucer more than 50 years ago as a 16 year-old studying for English Lit ‘O Level’ (that’s GCSEs on steroids to you). I found it fascinating and just a couple of years ago, spending my retirement doing some historical research into the Lollards, I delved back into him and enjoyed it immensely.
It is a great shame that youngsters today will be deprived of the literary treasures of the past. As Cicero wrote, he who is ignorant of what happened before he was born, is destined always to remain a child.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 years ago

One of the less-often repeated sayings of Martin Luther King spoke to the academy and how, “If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.”

He’s looking good on the part about close-minded, unscientific, and illogical aspects. As to immoral, that seems to have become such a fluid term, it’s a bit like the old question asked of judges on obscenity – I’ll know it when I see it.

bengormley1964
bengormley1964
2 years ago

Higher Education has peaked as a factory based approach to teaching/learning/research. It hasn’t happened overnight, but we are now at a point where students are simply units of income, not humans. Staff are enablers of the income generation. All are disposable and pockets are deep for shutting down and threatening complainants. Arts/Humanities are no longer valuable as the expectation of Higher Education is to pump out students who can fit into the work factory as quickly and as seeminglessly as possible. Humanities graduates typically enter the job market on lower salary scales than STEM subjects, and are therefore less lucrative worker bees. Humanities also teaches people about humanity and critical thinking – a humane and critical thinker does not make a good worker bee. We are fully down the rabbit hole of dystopia.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  bengormley1964

And so we should …………?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

Students, academics and society, all will lose as a result of this decision. It’s very sad.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

The Chemistry Dept Decolonized: Alchemy 101, why mercury works for yellow bile excess leading to syphilis, brass forging, and making dyes from lichens, all covered in year 1.

vince porter
vince porter
2 years ago

Universities and their professors impressed me – until I sat in one of their seats.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago
Reply to  vince porter

PG Wodehouse – no man is hero to his Butler.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
2 years ago

Crazy world we live in; maybe the universities should just teach everyone all about Amazonian rain forest indigenous tribes and nothing at all to do with what this country was built upon. Heaven forbid we offend any of the poor sensitive dears.