The Academy






History of English as a Discipline

The history of English as a discipline to be taught in schools and universities coincides with the history of how literature came to be valued as something worth teaching. 

In the English-speaking world, the rise of literature began in 18th century England.  In this period literature became dislocated from everyday social life.  As literature (along with art) became a discrete entity that was no longer woven into social relations but seen as a separate thing or isolatable experience, it became capable of being analysed and given a raised status.  This was also the rise of the “aesthetic”, and the work of Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Coleridge and others were produced on this subject.

By the 19th century, other factors contributed to bringing English into academia.  The single most important influence favouring the growth of English studies was the failure of religion.  Also, while English was not a direct substitute for religion, it held a remarkably similar discourse.  Like religion, it was capable of operating at every social level, and it had a pacifying influence.  George Gordon, an early Professor of English Literature at Oxford said at this time: “England is sick, and … English literature must save it.  The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State”.

Therefore, literature was called into a kind of national service to mend the cracks that religion had left.  It was to do this by its appeal to all social classes.  English was to be taught because, as a Victorian handbook for English teachers put it, it helps to “promote sympathy and fellow feeling among all classes”.  It was thought that it also had the power to elevate the minds of the lower classes.  It would communicate to them the moral riches of bourgeois civilisation, impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and, since reading is an essentially solitary, contemplative activity, curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action.  Like religion, literature works primarily by emotion and experience, and so was well-fitted to carry through the ideological task which religion left off.  The “experience” of literature is not only the homeland of ideology, but also in its literary form a kind of vicarious self-fulfilment.  If you couldn't experience living on a vast estate with a house full of servants, you could at least read about it.

It is for all these reasons that English as an academic subject was first institutionalised not in the universities, but in the Mechanics' Institutes and working men's colleges.  English was literally the poor man's Classics, a way of providing an education for those who would never attend public schools and Oxford or Cambridge.  The emphasis within English studies was on solidarity between the social classes, national pride, and moral values.  Note that it was the lower classes who were being instructed in class solidarity, and not those at Oxford and Cambridge.  This was because it was hoped English would prevent any social unrest.

The rise of English in England is also parallel to the admission of women into higher education.  Because English is concerned with “feeling and experience”, it was deemed suitable for the improvement of women who were excluded from science and the professions in any case.  However, English still suffered from a reputation as being a second-rate education, and those who taught it often resented it.  They especially resented the pupils they were teaching.  When English came to be taught in the universities, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, the first Professor of English at Cambridge University, would open with the word “Gentlemen” lectures addressed to a hall filled largely with women.

While English was slow to make it to Oxford and Cambridge, it really came into its own as a discipline after World War I, led by people like F.R. Leavis (who had a background in history) and later Q.D. Leavis (who was from psychology and cultural anthropology).  They led a new movement that changed the way English studies were viewed.  English was suddenly in vogue as an intellectual pursuit due largely to the efforts of the Leavises.  In the words of Terry Eagleton: “In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else”.  English was now propelled into the realm of a higher calling.  Again from Eagleton: “English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence – what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationships with others, to live from the vital centre of the most essential values – were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny”.  Cambridge then changed its tune with regard to English.  By the late 1920s and early 1930s, English was a central subject there, superior to law, science, politics, philosophy or history. 

English as a discipline continued to flourish.  From the 1930s to the 1950s American New Criticism was making its mark with the work of T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and W.K. Wimsatt.  From this point onwards, the major changes in English were within the discipline itself in the form of changes and shifts in literary theory and approaches.  The 1970s brought a challenge as to whether literature could encompass the universal values espoused by the Leavises, and this led to a splintering of multiple perspectives and approaches.  Marxism came and went, and feminism provided a major shot in the arm for literary studies and has remained a lasting influence.  The 1980s saw the arrival of multiculturalism, and other –isms continued into the 1990s: post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism.

In the 21st century, English and the humanities are in the position of justifying their existence in universities and proving their worth in an environment that equates the university with the “marketplace”.  We find ourselves in the position of arguing all over again why literature and English studies matter.  With an emphasis now on vocational subjects, English is once again seen as something of a “soft” option.  Looking at the history of English studies, we see that it is a complex and intellectually demanding discipline which has a place beyond the “marketplace”.







Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National