Over the past month or so, I’ve been mulling over Marion Thain’s brilliantly suggestive essay on the nature and future of English as a discipline, which has helped me to notice things that otherwise might have passed me by. Barely a week after its appearance, for instance, the institution for which I work advertised a new job in ‘Post-1900 Anglophone Literature and Culture’: the description ran to several paragraphs, without once specifying the name of the Faculty in question—which happened to be, yes, English. I should say from the outset that I neither lament nor regret this shift in emphasis. In this respect I am a pragmatist: first and foremost, I am delighted that my institution can resource any new jobs at all in the current economic climate; secondly, I support any description that allows the widest and most inclusive range of candidates to apply. I too nevertheless wonder whether the academy-wide tendency to replace a geographic connotation with a purely linguistic marker might unduly limit the sorts of work that we who work in literature departments might undertake—along with the broader civic dialogues that we might hope to engage.

One of the many merits of Thain’s piece is its refusal to let these central queries get bogged down in terminological disputes or quarrels over resource allocation. What should we call our Faculties or Departments? How do we carve up our separate areas of scholarly expertise? These are pressing questions, to be sure, but Thain asks a more fundamental question about the nature of specialisation per se, and the manner in which linguistic, geographic and historical difference might perform useful work. My own institution is, once again, powerfully representative in this respect: ‘English’ used to mean ‘literature written in the British Isles’, but now means anything written in English; many students now choose to focus on other media (film, rap, etc.). I welcome this newfound inclusiveness: on a selfish level, I am very fortunate in getting to supervise dissertations on Hart Crane and on Kendrick Lamar, as I do right now. Yet there is no such thing as boundless inclusiveness: it was significant that my Faculty chose to increase the geographic scope of the syllabus at the very moment that it eliminated the language paper that enabled undergraduates to study works in German, French or Ancient Greek. No institution can do everything—and even if it could, its work would quickly become meaningless as a result. Who would want an open degree in ‘Culture’?

The question is therefore where and why we slice, given that slice we must. I agree powerfully with Thain that ‘English’, whose productive geographic-linguistic ambiguity she so eloquently evokes, represents one such useful segment of academic pie, because of and not despite the alarming upsurge in right-wing nationalism. James Chandler’s England in 1819 represents but one example of a scholarly work whose theoretical and political ambitions are only increased by its severe regional and historical delimitation. Too often, in my experience, a more ‘inclusive’ (which is to say less historically and geographically specific) syllabus means, in practice: more students gravitating towards modern and contemporary culture, and towards North American texts and theoretical procedures (‘speaking English’ today often really means ‘speaking American’).

Why, then, should English still matter? Three interwoven factors contribute to my sense that it does. The first concerns the fragile yet enduring status of English universities as public institutions, despite the appalling consequences of the past two decades of marketisation. Thain leaves suggestively open the question whether ‘English’ as a discipline means something different in a UK or a US context. (The means by which English came on both sides of the Atlantic to stand in for the humanities in general, in policy documents such as Harvard’s 1945 report on General Education in a Free Society, is a fascinating question that falls outside my current purview.) It seems to me eminently plausible that a South African university might decide to concentrate some of its resources upon specifically South African literature; such considerations only become to my mind decisive, however, when the university in question is a public good, funded (however vanishingly) by a body politic.

This does not mean that our endeavours should be co-ordinated to placidly serve ‘the state’, or ‘the taxpayer’ (those bloodless abstractions). On the contrary: a renewed ‘English’ might call into question precisely the doxa and essentialisms that other (national) institutions uphold. Part of my conviction in this regard stems from the incontrovertible tendency for English departments in particular to be caught up in recent cultural controversies concerning ‘decolonising the curriculum’, in a manner that History, for example, for the most part is not. Here we might point the way beyond the bad choice between canonicity and #tearitdown: Shakespeare, it still comes as a surprise to many on both sides of the debate to learn, does not need ‘queering’, being already plenty queer. Under the banner of a weird or non-authoritarian patriotism, we might bring together things as distinct as Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, a work so different from the people who march in columns believe themselves to be singing, and Angela Carter’s deep investment in English folk traditions.

This brings me to my third and final justification. Put simply, we should continue to teach English, because we do not yet know well enough what it has been. Let me take a concrete example. In a recent open letter, many undergraduates called upon my institution to take further steps toward ‘decolonisation’, which specifically criticised the ‘practical criticism’ that has come to characterise English as a subject:

The ‘objective’, ‘apolitical’ readerly response I. A. Richards (among others) posited from his ‘experiments’ drew almost exclusively on readings by white, upper middle-class male students, during the height of the British empire.

There is some truth in this report: students were indeed overwhelmingly white, upper-class males. It is moreover refreshing to feel the signatories’ burning concern for justice, which contrasts so strikingly with my own apolitical generation (we were the children of Blair). Yet much else is demonstrably false: the Faculty was established only in 1919, where the empire, far from being at its ‘height’, was already and fortunately in a period of obvious decline. Richards, meanwhile, never intended his work to be ‘apolitical’ or ‘objective’: his exercises were rather empirical studies in subjective psychology that, he believed, held powerful political consequences. These could take reactionary form, as in the subsequent (patriotic) criticism of F. R. Leavis; but so too did they enable significant counter-traditions of English, such as the materialist critique of Raymond Williams, or the media history of Marshall McLuhan, both of whom broke from Richards’s example precisely through continuing procedures that he had established. Students are in my experience positively surprised to learn the prehistory of an institution to which they belong: it is like discovering grandparents who once fought on separate sides of a war, rather than having been born with scant hair and false teeth. To learn who we might be, we need to learn to revise our presuppositions concerning what we have been.

Ewan James Jones is Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Literature in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.