Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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What point does Wilde make about journalism and reviewers through Algernon's remark about university-educated people?

"You should leave that to people who haven't been at University. They do it so well in the daily papers."

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The background to this has to do with the class structure and educational system of Britain in the nineteenth century. Education in England for the upper classes was offered in the "public schools" (a term somewhat confusingly applied to elite expensive independent schools) and the "old universities," Oxford and Cambridge. In these institutions, pupils were trained to pass the Oxford Literae Humaniores ("Greats") or similar Cambridge Tripos exam to graduate. The instruction and examination focused on the Greek and Latin languages, ancient literature, Christianity, philosophy, logic, and a modest amount of mathematics and physics. Modern languages and vernacular literature were absent from the curriculum. Thus, the old universities really did not prepare people in the discipline of modern or vernacular literature.

As a matter of class structure, journalists were not normally descended from the upper classes (who, like Jack and Algy did not need to work to earn their livings), but from members of the middle and working classes. Journalism was considered a skilled trade, with many journalists starting their careers in physical production of papers or clerical positions. Even within writing as a profession, there was a distinct class division between journalists and popular novelists on the one hand, and the literary elite (often upper middle class and university educated) working at magazines and in belles lettres (like Wilde himself) on the other hand.

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When Algernon makes this statement, he seems to imply that journalism is a field filled with relatively uneducated people (who have not been "at a University") and that these people believe, nonetheless, that they are qualified to offer critiques of modern literature or anything else, really.  Algernon's claim that literary criticism is not really Jack's "forte" and that he should leave it to those folks who review books for the papers -- a generally untrained, uneducated, unenlightened group -- is an example of irony.  We would expect him to connect the ability to accurately critique literature with someone who has received a higher lever of education, as Jack evidently has, instead of someone who hasn't.  Therefore, Algernon seems to have a relatively low opinion of journalism in general -- that it is a profession filled with individuals who believe that they are qualified to do something that they are not actually capable of doing -- and a similarly low opinion of literary reviewers in particular.  However, it is possible that Algernon is also pointing a finger at the university education in general, claiming that it actually makes us less qualified to do serious mental work rather than more (also ironic).  

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