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English in the 21st Century

One of the most telling statistics uncovered by recent destination surveys (2001-2) for new graduates by University of loughborough and the graduate report for their English Subject Association provides interesting — and perhaps surprising — reading: graduates in English, comprising Language and American studies as well as Literature, come near the top of the subject rankings (fifth in national, and fourth in Loughborough University’s findings). Is English, therefore, a vocational subject ?

Whether we appreciate it or not, the answer may be yes, and yet there is a paradox here, for a study of language and its use in specialised contexts (for example, conversational, literary or formal) does not seem to bear directly upon the “real world of work.” Does a knowledge of how Shakespeare extended and mixed linguistic styles count as training? Or how does Emily Dickinson’s portrayal of death helps us cope with our own sense of loss?

The commonsensical answer is, not directly, and I am sure that future employers are more drawn to English graduates because they can rest assured that such employees’ prose will be well-written. This may sound like faint praise for our students, but, increasingly, this sort of literacy is called for in most management and public service occupations. The development of postgraduate opportunities in the subject area is increasing steadily, and embraces exciting new associations with Information Technology and multimedia editing, say, as well as challenging debates within the traditional definition of the subject that provide new understandings of gender and literature itself. This is a deeper literacy than in simple grammar and vocabulary.

Let us take an example: I am intrigued by Shakespeare’s use of the word “providence” in Hamlet. When the tragic hero returns from England in Act V, I have a feeling that he is a changed man. The dictionary definitions of the word point us to a sense of God’s pattern and presence in the world, no matter how illogical events seem to be. Thus when Hamlet proclaims that “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” and that he defies augury (V.ii.215-6), it lends more power to the idea that he has received some sort of Christian enlightenment. Back at III.ii.208, for example, he seems without much comfort that “our thoughts are ours” as “their ends [are] none of our own”. A good memory and extensive reading would possibly furnish us with a sense of how Shakespeare understood the word without recourse to an electronic database where a concordance of all the words that he used are placed in context. This demands a great deal of the student, yet we can now ask any electronic archive to provide us with a sense of where any word occurs within Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre, within the drama of the Early Modern period, or simply across a wider and more modern span of time, and to do it within minutes. What we might find is crucial, for Shakespeare can also use that term “providence” to indicate, no matter what the dictionary may tell us about the likely or probable meaning at the time, a more individual understanding. For Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all in Julius Caesar, “providence” seems not like some caring force, but rather a constraining and even tyrannical imposition on individuality:

Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself – I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly, and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life – arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below. (V.i.100-7)

Similarly, Ulysses, that master politician from Troilus and Cressida, regards providence as an adjunct to a police state, that “knows almost every grain of Pluto’s gold,/Finds bottom in th’uncomprehensive deeps” and “unveils“ the deepest thoughts (III.iii.197-200). What is now possible is a deeper (as well as quicker and more comprehensive) survey of how an individual writer deployed certain words with a power that eludes the grasp of those who just consult the dictionary. We just scratch the surface of imaginative works if we regard the language as aiming at a constancy of meaning; Hamlet may regard his return to Denmark as a re-entry to a prison state, where God’s pattern may also be an unwelcome death of choice and individuality. Far from Christian consolation, this may be fatalism.

The significant thing to note about such research from databases is that it leads to interesting interpretation rather than lists. It is also possible to search archives of live performance in ways inconceivable even ten years ago. How Alan Bates has his Hamlet regard his fate from 1973 is significantly different from Kenneth Branagh in 1997; the one shunken and alone, the other turning to Horatio in a celebration of friendship and society, as each said the lines quoted above.

The information revolution can be an embarrassment of riches. Postgraduates of the future will need to know how to harness technology and put it to new and imaginative uses. They will probably need to be aware of the many different “Englishes” within a multicultural society. They will have to be able to use and shape the language in creative and rule-breaking ways within creative writing programmes. But mostly they will have to recognise that a sensitivity to language is an essential component of a productive and progressive society. That is why there is no likelihood of English going out of style or becoming a sterile exercise designed just to get a job.


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