If you think the idea of a university removing Jane Austen from teaching English literature sounds ridiculous, you’re right. Which is one of the many reasons why it didn’t happen. Still, you’d be forgiven for assuming that was the case if you read a headline in a mainstream newspaper stating it as fact.
“Jane Austen dropped out of college English class to ‘decolonize the curriculum,'” ran a title in the Telegraph last week over something that didn’t really happen at the University of Stirling, sparking an tediously predictable outcry from the usual culture war commentators and social media devotees alike. MailOnline opted for “No Pride, Lots of Prejudice”, and this non-story went all the way to Sky News Australiawhere, always keen to keep pace with the latest developments in Scottish university curricula, host Peta Credlin denounced it as “woke madness gone mad”.
Except, again, none of this happened in the way suggested. As both the Telegraph and MailOnline eventually acknowledged, several paragraphs into their articles, that the university‘s special authors module regularly focuses on a different author: its latest iteration centered on Jane Austen, and would be followed by another centered on Toni Morrison. . A quick search of the University of Stirling website confirms that Jane Austen remains where we would probably expect to find her: in the module on British Literature 1700-1830.
If it looks like the right-wing press has modernized something to address the outrage of the day, it probably has. These publications have a reputation for cataloging minute changes in university courses, capturing anything that might be related to “decolonization”, “anti-racism” or “trigger warnings”. Academics and university staff are increasingly calling this “FoI trolling” – journalists approaching university department after department on fishing expeditions with general freedom of information requests, asking for information on all changes to modules or playlists. They then scour course materials, internal communications and meeting minutes looking for things their readers might be encouraged to get angry about.
In the last few weeks alone, for example, the Telegraph published articles on an internal journal at the Glasgow School of Art to increase the diversity of models in life drawing lessons; Bristol University reportedly (but, of course, not actually) gave staff advice on pronouns for those who identify as cats; and supposed plans at Durham University to “subtract” the “white male perspective” from mathematics.
Read between the lines – or even just under the headline – and the articles are bound by the disheartening feeling that they are internal communications by well-meaning people trying to make their universities less thoughtless, dredged up by reporters and cynically blasted out of context. . So what begins as an academic pointing out to university management that a change in the curriculum could help their equality and inclusion initiative becomes another hysterical example of woke ideologues and activists of Black Lives Matter tearing down the values of Western civilization as we know it. . In case this conspiracy of moral anarchy was not obvious to their readers, articles like these frequently evolve into reminders of threats unrelated to statues of Winston Churchill. And they are determined to present everything as a new and dangerous threat, even if there is nothing new in these debates – the idea that universities would only consider postcolonial literature, a field taught in English departments at least since the 1980s, due to Black Lives Matter protests are absurd.
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And it’s not just universities that are caught up in this FoI-request-to-made-outrage pipeline. Heritage organizations, museums, art galleries, schools and cultural institutions are all fuel for outrage, in which the slightest change in existing ways of doing things is likely to be seen as a threat. red led by an awakened elite. According to GB News, the National Museum of Wales is “apparently canceling steam trains” as it may write new labels containing information about the relationship between industrial technology and empire. Kew Gardens, the National Trust, the Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Imperial War Museum and even Cambridge’s Latin textbooks have all featured in recent weeks in news articles about decolonization and/or the supposed “culture of cancellation”. Austen seems to be a favorite subject: Plans for the Jane Austen House Museum to include more contextual information about Regency-era colonialism have been turned into global media headlines about ‘woke madness’ and ‘cancellation culture’, though the museum itself has released a statement saying it plans to refresh its collections had been misrepresented.
I don’t know where anyone finds the energy to continue being angry at stories deliberately twisted out of all proportion. I don’t know why cultured, college-educated journalists aren’t more embarrassed to feign ignorance of how museums or universities work – pretending they don’t know these institutions exist to examine how we relate to the past today and to dialogue with new ideas. By singling out and shaming any institution that aims to do just that, it is newspapers, not our universities, that are manufacturing our “cancellation culture.”