Written by Stephen Metcalf, this is a short history of the life (and death?) of literary theory as taught in the great universities of the western world. It is written, happily, in terms which ordinary people can understand, which is more than can be said for almost everything else ever written about the subject.
Metcalf has an appropriately jaundiced view of the intelligence and ruthless self-interest of professors of Eng. Lit. Such profs, he argues, moved from being suckers to being con men and back to being suckers again; none of these roles being one which attracts respect from anyone capable of rational thought.
Along the way, however, he points out that the great strength of English departments in universities was that, while being 'vulnerable to charlatanism and dupery' (you can say that again), they were also 'the last great repository for the nonutilitarian hopes of the university.' The English departments, were (Metcalf maintains) just about the only places where any serious thinking went on about life and knowledge in general, without that thinking being directed towards turning students into competent lawyers, engineers, and surgeons.
Well, maybe. Metcalf certainly has a point. I have always had a strong preference for vocational education myself, but not to the exclusion of all else. Any vocational education needs, in my view, to be based firmly on a broad liberal-arts foundation. And I would not disagree with the following statement from John Alexander Smith, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, who told his new students in 1914 that
Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.The problem with the English departments is that they did (and still do) a great deal of harm and not much good. Their success rate in teaching students how to 'detect when a man is talking rot' is lamentably low. If it wasn't, they wouldn't have any students left after the end of the first term.
If you really wish to consider the purpose of university education in more detail, find a decent university library and read my 1988 book The Goals of Universities.