Once a bastion of English and History departments, the British studies discipline is waning as American students increasingly put career goals over their love of Charles Dickens, writes James Jeffrey.
It’s Friday afternoon at the University of Texas at Austin, which means it’s time for sherry and a weekly lecture on British studies. The complimentary libation is served on a silver tray next to a large stuffed lion, a jovial nod to England’s national animal and the country’s lionised literary past.
Recent talks have included Revisiting Brideshead Revisited, Churchill’s Most Difficult Decisions and The Novels of Benjamin Disraeli and Oscar Wilde.
The audience leans toward the mature end of the spectrum – one ex-faculty member who attends is 97 years old. A few undergraduate and graduate students are dotted around but they are definitely in the minority.
British studies is up against shifting trends in American universities as history and English departments focus less on Western Europe and more on other parts of the world.
America quit being a British colony almost 250 years ago but until recently the UK loomed large culturally.
“As a field, British Studies was inflated in relation to other parts of the world during the 20th Century,” says Jason Kelly, director of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Arts and Humanities Institute.
“Folks have become more concerned about other places and interests around the globe, which I have to say is increasingly productive for thinking about the world, and more in tune with the challenges we face as a global community.”
This has led to a dramatic decline in the number of British studies courses over the past few decades.
At the same time, enrolment in undergraduate British history courses has declined “precipitately”, according to a report by the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS).
Nowadays, the report laments, the discipline is considered by many “to be old-fashioned, hide bound, conservative and boring – a discipline of old men in tweed coats who still hanker after the stuffy and sexist atmosphere of the senior common room.”
Those within British studies, however, note the decreasing numbers reflect a wider trend within the humanities as it struggles in the face of changing expectations among students. Since the late 1990s the number of English degrees has fallen by nearly half, according to the US Department of Education. History in general is down about 45% from its 2007 peak.
“The cost of college is exploding, there’s this complete inflation in US higher education,” says Professor James Vaughn, a historian specialising in Britain at Ohio University.
“If one has to attend for four years at great cost, you want some remuneration, so the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] subjects are seen as having massive pay-offs compared to the humanities and the social sciences.”
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This has been compounded since the financial crash of 2008, with students increasingly fearful that a humanities degree won’t lead to gainful employment, says Paul Halliday, president of NACBS.
Nevertheless, all may not be lost for British studies.
“As the balloon of British studies has deflated, we’ve seen it redefining itself in terms of what it means and does,” Kelly says. “What we have been seeing, especially in the last decade, is British studies reorienting itself to increasingly focus on the British Empire and its lasting impact and influence around the world.”
This is particularly relevant for those wanting to better understand how the US got to where it has, especially on the global stage.
“Our laws and national institutions, but also character, are so shaped by being part of the British Empire and breaking away from it,” says Erika Rappaport, the American author of A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World.
“We can’t understand the history of US global influence without understanding that Great Britain laid the groundwork, infrastructure and ideologies of globalisation while building and losing their empire in the 19th and 20th Centuries.”
Rappaport became interested in British history and empire studies through a love of reading Victorian literature as a teenager that left her “dying to find out more about the culture that produced such amazing literature”.
She says the history of the US being a former colony of the UK has created “a love-hate relationship”.
“We share so much in terms of our consumer culture and education, but at times our tastes are very different,” says Rappaport, citing how the US fondness for coffee stemmed from Americans turning away from British food stuffs – such as tea – because these reminded them of their colonial status.
The UT Austin British Studies programme – it is not a degree in itself – began in 1975 based on weekly lectures about English literature, history and government.
Since then it has hosted many eminent speakers – CP Snow, the British novelist and scientist, spoke in 1976 on Elite Education in England; Iris Murdoch in 1985 spoke on Themes in English Literature and Philosophy; and the historian Michael Howard spoke in 1993 on Strategic Deception in the Second World War.
“I like the interdisciplinary ethos, how you get to meet people from other departments,” says 34-year-old Trevor Simmons during a break in the carol singing at the recent British Studies Christmas Party. He completed a PhD in British Economic History in 2015 and still attends the weekly talks.
“It’s also done in a fun way. You’ve got the sherry, the stuffed lion, the oak panels – it’s a little bit of Oxford.”
Programme director and founder Roger Louis says the programme strives to include a multitude of perspectives from different nations caught up in the British historical experience, ranging from Scots and Irish to Jamaicans, Indians, Australians and Nigerians.
“Ongoing discussions in British studies are engaging because of the clash of different perspectives as well as the nuance of cultural interpretation,” Louis says.
This global aspect of British studies, Halliday says, is its greatest strength in remaining valid and competitive as the humanities try to appeal to students.
“In the last ten years there has been an explosion of interest in the field in the types of problems that are affecting everyone, such as how the consumer society was predicated on slave labour and the destruction of indigenous people,” Halliday says. “This re-orientation has expanded the reach of British studies.”
Kelly says he saw this reflected in the impressive breadth of views on display when he attended this year’s annual NACBS conference in Vancouver, Canada.
“The younger faculty entering the discipline are able to research more broadly, synthesise new information and challenge the presumptions of the older faculty members,” Kelly says. “It’s refreshing and makes you realise that British Studies isn’t going anywhere soon.”
“I view myself as a global citizen, and my dream job would be with the UN,” 20-year-old Lucas Peralta remarked at the Christmas party, after taking British Imperialism in the Middle East as part of his International relations and global studies degree.
“So understanding the influence of the UK there and also with the likes of Nato is extremely important.”
The ongoing impact of colonialism was on the mind of 22-year-old history undergraduate Ana Chan at the Christmas Party. She has been following the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, explaining how Britain has always been on the periphery of her life because her family came to American from Hong Kong.
“My family have mixed feelings,” Chan says. “They remember places they couldn’t go under British colonial rule because of affordability. I’ve heard family friends discussing whether it was a good thing for Hong Kong to be separated from mainland China for so long given the trouble happening now. At the same time, I was raised to view Britain as a close ally of the US.”
Halliday, who teaches history, says Brexit has put Britain back on the minds of many of his students.
“Both the UK and the US have always been deeply tied to the rest of the world,” he says. “That’s why Brexit interests my students: it reads like a reversal of centuries of British interconnection with Europe and beyond.”
History professor Vaughan says his students have also been drawing comparisons between the shock of Brexit and Donald Trump’s unexpected election and want to discuss what “it’s all about”.
UT Austin programme director Louis recalls the words of Oliver Franks, the British Ambassador to the US from 1948 to 1952, when he discussed the special relationship between the UK and US during a British Studies lecture given in 1989.
“He said that we are a people who have a lot in common and are trying to solve common problems,” Louis says.