The English Degree – Pursuing a Life Less Ordinary

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The English Degree – Pursuing a Life Less Ordinary

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring …

Alexander Pope’s famous lines were written at a time when earnest pilgrims, seeking and finding (after a wearying search) the very fountain of knowledge, could kneel to cup their humble hands in the deep but clear water and bring wisdom to their lips to quench their thirst with slow, contemplative draughts. Poor mortals of the twenty-first century who seek the precious wellspring of education, however, invariably find that the (‘readily accessible’) fountain has flooded, too full of learning, and the muddied water is hurriedly swallowed. Information is everywhere and, as a result, increasingly difficult to sift through, accommodate and put to use — let alone savour.

Those who find themselves fortunate enough to pursue higher education (a population group that has more than doubled in the last twenty years)1 are weighed down by the burden of choice between an apparently limitless range of studying options. This uncomfortable freedom is immediately restricted, however, by the constraints of necessity. For younger people leaving school or college, more often than not, foremost among these constraints is the need for parental consent: a consent that, in turn, invariably hinges on the likelihood of financial or other tangible returns at the end of a sizeable three — or more — year investment. For most mature students, first degrees or further qualifications are similarly tailored to a financial bottom line, either to increase earning potential or as part of a subsidised employee development programme. Insofar as higher education is seen as a means to an end, it is only seen as valuable or...

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...tance in any workplace. Moreover, for those who are inclined to believe that there is more to human experience than the exchange of goods and services for commercial profit, the English Degree offers a life less ordinary for students past, present and future.

1 National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, Summary Report (

2 Peter Maasen et al., The European Commission New Perspectives for Learning — Briefing Paper 6: Government Policy on Higher Education Institutions’ Economic Role (

3 Ibid.

4 Cited by David Johnson, Shakespeare and South Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 208.

5 John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. M.B. Forman (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), p. 72.

6 National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, Summary Report.

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