Thursday, 9 July 2020

Teaching English Literature

Because Morris wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in November 1886 about the teaching of English literature at Oxford, he often features in a minor way in recent books about the origins of university English studies.  And because he took such a negative view of the subject – ‘philology can be taught, but “English literature” cannot’ – he usually receives severe criticism in such volumes.  Thus Alexandra Lawrie, in The Beginnings of University English (2014), suggests that when Morris criticises the notion of teaching English literature he is ‘disregarding the fact that it was already being taught elsewhere, and had been for some time’.  His ‘claims are rendered invalid’, in her view, by the detailed and scholarly course plans that contemporaries like John Churton Collins were already putting into effect.

We might note in Morris’s defence, however, that there has been a sceptical counter-discourse on university English across the twentieth century.  Here, for instance, is Alan Coren, who got a First in English at Oxford in 1960 and went on to become deputy editor of Punch in later years: ‘Fortunately for me, I was reading English, a discipline hardly worthy the title, involving as it did nothing more arduous than sitting under a tree and reading books that one would otherwise have read for pleasure, and, at the end of three years, showing off about them to grown-ups’.

Or, for a more authoritative voice on this topic, we might turn to a former Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.  John Bayley mulled over a lifetime in the subject in his anthology Good Companions (2001): ‘I have come to feel that “English” should not have become an academic subject in the first place.  It is one that is better as an enriching amusement … for the middle-aged and the elderly.  The young who really want education (and not many of them do) should face more intellectual and more demanding pursuits’.  So the Morris position versus academic English studies is not quite dead yet!