English Literature as an Academic Discipline- a short note

Peter Barry, in his book, states that education, from the middle ages upto the 1820s, was strictly a monopoly of the Church of England. Only men could attend them, the teachers were ordained ministers, they had to be unmarried and only classics like Latin, Greek, mathematics and divinity were taught. There were only two universities, the Oxford and the Cambridge and only Anglican communicants could attend the colleges.

Many attempts were made to reform this system, and include English, in the education structure. The first professor of English was appointed in 1829. However, it was not the study of literature, but language instead, and literature was merely used as a source of linguistic examples. English literature as such was first taught at King’s College, London, beginning in 1831. F.D Maurice, in 1840, regarded literature as a subject to be studied by the middle classes only, so that they have a means of articulation.   The aristocrats were the international elites, and the poor were too helpless to think about anything but their survival. However, this had a political dimension too. the middle classes would feel a sense of belonging to their country. The study of English was also seen as a substitute for religion since attendance at the church below middle class was very poor. So those people needed to be taught moral restraints. However, the Author also feels that English was introduced as a subject for the collective betterment of others, to spread culture and enlightenment, and a self-interested desire to maintain social stability.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, there were several attempts to establish a chair in English at Oxford, but those were a failure because of a speech  by the History professor Edward Freeman. He argued that literature had to be studied along with language, otherwise it couldn’t be studied. He also said that literature involves everything subjective and that only objective aspects were suitable for examination. He won the argument. However, Cambridge english was more recently founded, in 1911, and therefore bringing a change in that was relatively easy. The change was mainly brought about by I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis.

Richards founded a method to study literature, the Practical Criticism, also the title of his book (1929). This made a close study of literature possible by isolating the text from history and context. Empson, a pupil of Richards, published a book in 1930. It was called the ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’. This book took the method of close verbal analysis to what many felt to be an extreme. This system was seen as disturbing by Leavis, as he felt that literature, especially poetry, was being treated as seriously as if it were mathematics. Even Eliot called it the ‘lemon-squeezer’ school of criticism. Leavis, and his wife however, took on more revolutionary themes and conducted research, like on popular fiction, and the relationship between journalism and literature. They also published a journal called ‘Scrutiny’, which extended the close reading from poetry to other forms of literature.

Nevertheless, Leavis’ system wasn’t free of criticism. it had been criticised of having an overwhelmingly moral approach towards literature, an improper explanation of critical terms, being more of a summary than an analysis, and use of lengthy quotations by Leavis on which there was surprisingly little comment. Peter Barry says, “The ‘project’ of ‘theory’ from the 1960s onwards is in the essence to re-establish connections between literary study and these three academic fields from which it had so resolutely separated itself.”

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