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Why study English? Literature, politics, and the university, 1932-1965

What is the purpose of studying English? How does language underpin politics? What role, if any, should the subject play within democratic society?

Attempts to understand attitudes towards these questions in the early-to-mid-twentieth century have previously emphasized two hostile schools of thought. Firstly, an approach towards criticism influenced by the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who emphasized both the moral seriousness of literature and the natural hostility of the critic towards most aspects of contemporary society. This hostility ranged from mass entertainment to the ephemeral world of most intellectual discussion, highlighted most clearly by C.P. Snow’s claims about the Two Cultures. The other school of thought was predominant in the work of British Marxist critics such as Alick West, Edgell Rickword, and Christopher Caudwell, who saw all literature as political and believed that the best literature pointed towards a Communist society. For them it was the goal of the critic to agitate for this new culture.

However there was also an overlooked strand of criticism between these two poles, critics who saw the study of English Literature within the university as a tool with which to create the kind of citizens capable of creating and administering a better, more socially-just society. In the conception of four critics; L.C. Knights, Bonamy Dobrée, F.W. Bateson, and David Daiches, an English degree, particularly one that taught students to engage with subjects such as history and sociology, was perfectly poised to create a humane and empathetic minority. These four critics taught for the most part at newer institutions, at Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Sussex or, in Bateson’s case, from a peripheral position at Oxford University. They attempted to create, through departmental and syllabus reforms, versions of an English school capable of educating humane, democratic citizens.

They each engaged in debates over university reform and the wider role of the university in society. A key part of these reformed syllabuses was to expose English students to other subjects which brought wider social and political contexts to literature, such as history or sociology without reducing the subject to mere ‘cultural history’.

Whilst these manifestoes were slightly too ambitious to ever be fully implemented, each critic did make a significant impact. Knights, who was a major contributor to Leavis’ journal Scrutiny in its early years before drifting away, was a figure in adult education and teacher training, educating a number of tutors including Roy Shaw (later director of the Arts’ Council) as well as the novelist Anthony Burgess.

University of Leeds: the School of English by Stefan Baguette. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Bonamy Dobrée became a prominent and popular voice in Leeds, writing regularly for the Yorkshire Post on cultural matters, such as the expansion of arts education and the unheard-of suggestion of putting cafes in art galleries. Dobrée was also instrumental in establishing the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (which Churchill famously blamed for losing him the 1945 election), and set up the Universities Quarterly in 1946. His Universities and Regional Life (1943) saw the university as a beacon of post-war social reconstruction, acting as a bastion of cultural value in places often lacking cultural and intellectual life. Universities must become ‘propagandists’ for social change and ‘the good life’, creating graduates who were able ‘to mould the new industrial civilization in which the century of the common man will find its being.’

Though Bateson’s career at Oxford was difficult (he failed to become a fellow at his college until 1946), he founded the journal Essays in Criticism and was an influential teacher and mentor to New Left critics including Stuart Hall, Graham Martin, and Raymond Williams, as well as a number of poets and writers including Al Alvarez, Kingsley Amis, Bernard Bergonzi, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, John Holloway, Philip Larkin, W.W. Robson, and John Wain. He became a rallying point for radical academics who sought to reform the Oxford curriculum after his death and he waged a protracted campaign against the patrician anonymity of the Times Literary Supplement, which had permitted a closed elite of reviewers to monopolise literary life. In fact, many of the important reviewers of the past 40 years, including John Carey, Val Cunningham, and Christopher Ricks were close to Bateson.

David Daiches repudiated his youthful Marxism of the 1930s, which inspired his early works. However, he continued to see the university English Department possessing a vital social role, with the potential to reconstruct society. He was a key figure behind creation of the University of Sussex (which opened in 1961) where students in the humanities were required to study their subject in conjunction with wider historical and social courses which sought to prepare the undergraduate for the rigours of modern life. In this, he sought to transcend the Two Cultures debate and to foster the kind of literary education which did not recoil from contemporary society, but embraced technological modernity.

Whilst these visions of the English School were ultimately limited, and generally failed to withstand critiques from Marxist, feminist, or Post-colonial perspectives, they were important for reshaping the subject in the pre-Robbins era, and in educating a generation of influential students.

Featured image credit: English Literature by gacabo (cropped). CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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