English Literature at the New College of the Humanities

‘The New College of the Humanities (NCOH) is a new concept in university education.’ For Britain this is probably true. It is also far too early to come to any judgements about it: it’ll take several years to see how successful or self-standing the college is, and whether it is the first of several new private undergraduate institutions in Britain. There’s probably a market for it, though I’m far from sure whether it’ll do more good or harm for safeguarding the humanities (instinctive reservations about inequalities and ‘elitism’ loom). The founding Master, A.C. Grayling, makes some fair points in a letter to the Birkbeck Student Union President about the need for a system of financing arts education closer to the US model now that the government have abdicated most responsibility for it, though there’s still much to learn about how it will operate.

The project has the backing of a dream-team professoriate, and I’m looking forward to hearing them speak about the College. Mary Beard helpfully pointed out that NCOH is not a ‘New Oxbridge’ because it is not a research institution—the College doesn’t currently look like it’ll foster research in the humanities. The ‘highly distinguished’ professors are distinguished because of their academic work and, in several cases, their general, popular works that made them famous: Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Niall Ferguson aren’t famous teachers, which is relevant when the college is a teaching-only institution. In short, there’s more to learn about how the teaching will work. NCOH also won’t be a liberal arts college, which is something I’d be very interested to see attempted in Britain. Some more discussions of the institutional impact and significance of the NCOH are available here and here.

NCOH offers the same English literature course as the University of London International Programmes. The course descriptions have been cut and pasted without being updated, which explains an odd fixation on Helen Gardner’s editorial work: her Penguin edition of the Metaphysical Poets has been updated since, and, weirder still, her New Oxford Book of English Verse
is prescribed when you might think that Christopher Ricks (the only literary scholar named on the website so far) would prefer teaching from his new edition, the Oxford Book of English Verse. I was surprised to see that the course makes no mention of learning a foreign language, though it prescribes texts in several different languages (Greek, Latin, Italian, Middle English).The course is similar to that taught at that especially artsy college, Goldsmiths (see page nine of their undergraduate prospectus), but the NCOH bolts on its distinctive diploma subjects (logic and critical thinking, science literacy, applied ethics and professional skills). So classes on the Alexander Pope’s poetry might be followed by a session on microeconomics. For the extra cost students supposedly leave better prepared (and better connected) for the world of work than their ripped-jean colleagues at Goldsmiths.

So its English course is fairly standard. In Christopher Ricks, the college has recruited a critic renowned for his sensitive, non-theoretical readings of literary texts (including Bob Dylan). But given that the company’s name was previously ‘Grayling Hall Limited‘, it seems likely that some of the founders will (as founders tend to do) put their intellectual mark on the institution. Although the diploma subjects are kept separate, and Richard Dawkins probably won’t be teaching Gawain and the Green Knight, a strong emphasis on scientific and critical reasoning is potentially detrimental to English teaching. Creativity, emotion, sensitivity, intuition, diversity, empathy, creativity and holistic thinking are important in an English degree: they don’t become wishy-washy when faced with critical thinking, reason, and analysis. The University of London degree, like all English degrees I know of (including those mentioned in my previous post) balances analytical and imaginative approaches. It’d be a strange English course that didn’t promote feeling as well as thought.

[Update 10th June 2011: see my follow-up post ‘Social R&D’ for more on this]

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