Categories: Literary Criticism

Revising English: Theory and Practice

The difficulty of resolving the ‘Arnoldian paradox’ – of closing the gap between culture and society so that the former could be brought to bear on the problems of the latter – remained an important theme in the literary criticism of the 1960s and 1970s. During these decades, the need for a stable, humane culture was given a new sense of urgency. For some, this stemmed from the threat of the Cold War: the critic C. L. Mowat claimed that a renewed sense of a common culture was potentially ‘our last, best hope on earth’.1 For others, this urgency was prompted by the debasing of popular culture, and the consequent need for critics who could keep alive what Lionel Trilling referred to as ‘the cultural mode of thought’.

2 The critic, charged with the task of interro- gating modern culture and finding ways in which literature could continue to be made meaningful, was invested with a level of responsi- bility that far exceeded that of the scholar. And while the critic may indeed be an academic specialist, the task he or she faced was of a scale that rendered questions of disciplinarity irrelevant: ‘We are all specialists now: and what we need is to rediscover what is common between us.’3 This book has focused, up to this point, on the disparities between the academic study of English literature and the ways in which literary criticism was theorised and practised by a number of influential critics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It would now seem logical to turn my attention to the developments that took place in criticism and scholarship between the 1950s and the 1980s, developments which have arguably done more than any other to exacerbate the gap between the lay reader and the professional scholar.

A detailed study of this period – from, say, the end of Scrutiny in 1953 to the publication of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction 30 years later – might take a number of courses. It might look at the work of the journal Critical Quarterly, which was founded in 1959 and aimed to address ‘the great central values and insights of our culture and of our common humanity alike’, reinterpreting the literary tradition for an audience that encom- passed ‘everyone whose I.Q. is good and whose education, in whatever discipline or specialism, has been worthy of the name’.4 It might address the impact on English of the rise of cultural studies and the work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. It would certainly take in the work of Terry Eagleton, Terence Hawkes and Catherine Belsey in popularising – and making available for student consumption – the developments made in European and North American literary theory, through texts such as Structuralism and Semiotics (1977), Critical Practice (1980) and Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), and through Hawkes’s work as editor of the ‘New Accents’ series.

Such work offered its own ways of modifying and reinterpreting the literary tradition, ‘question[ing] those arrangements of foregrounding and backgrounding, of stressing and repressing, of placing at the centre and restricting to the periphery, that give our own way of life its distinctive character’.5 Indeed, for Terence Hawkes, the arrival of structuralism marked the potential democratisation of critical activity, resting as it did on principles that could be ‘systemat- ically set out, taught, and learned’ rather than on what appeared to be ‘qualities you had to be born with’.6 However, the consequences of literary theory for the academic discipline of English – consequences that included the overturning of former certainties about the primacy of the canon and the stability of meaning – were not universally welcomed. Hayden White, writing in 1977, highlighted the loss of cohesion and lack of shared purpose that many saw as a threat to the subject’s disci- plinary identity: ‘Modern literary critics recognize no disciplinary barriers, either as to subject matter or to methods […] This science of rules has no rules. It cannot even be said that it has a preferred object of study.’7 And while this erosion of boundaries could be experienced as liberating, the complexity of much literary theory – the abstruseness of its discourse, its removal from common experiences of reading and its reliance on philosophy – meant that it could easily become divorced from any concept of utility.

Academic literary criticism had arrived at a level of specialisa- tion that could only be comprehended by a small circle of readers: the Arnoldian concept of the critic as mediating between the text and the educated general public had been left far behind.8 In this final chapter, however, I intend to explore another field in which the tension between scholarship and criticism has been particularly apparent, namely that of secondary education, and more specifically, of A-level English Literature. This course is, effectively, the first ‘point of entry’ to the discipline for the literary critics of the future, being a prerequisite for the majority of degree courses in English at British universities. Yet the versions of literary study embodied by A-level syllabuses – the models of criticism that they establish and validate – have, until recently, received relatively little attention from the subject community as a whole. Nevertheless, A-level English Literature has become a particularly rich forum for debates about the nature and purpose of literary study; and it is for this reason that it provides a fitting subject for the closing chapter of a book on the ways in which literary criticism has been defined, discussed and contested, especially in the context of education. Many of the debates about A-level have focused on the same opposition between personal and professional knowledge that I have traced in the development of English at university level. These debates were high- lighted by the reform of A-level English Literature that took place in 2000, as part of the wider restructuring of post-16 education throughout England and Wales.

The new specifications in English Literature that were introduced in September 2000 promised, initially, to bring A-level English into line with the practices and philosophies that shape English in higher education (in particular, the challenges posed by literary theory and its questioning of the status of the text and the nature of interpre- tation). These changes raised a number of arguments that hinted at a continuing anxiety about literary criticism and the nature of literary knowledge, leading ultimately to the question of what it is that A-level English Literature should be aiming to do. The problematic nature of the relationship between school and university English stems largely from increasing governmental inter- vention in the shape of the school curriculum. Since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989, English teachers in maintained schools throughout England and Wales have had to follow a prescribed framework and draw on a fixed canon of texts: all secondary school pupils in England, for example, must study two plays by Shakespeare; the work of two major novelists and four major poets published before 1914; and poetry, fiction and drama by at least seven major writers published after 1914.9 The public examination system has also been brought under greater governmental control. For much of the twentieth century, this system was the responsibility of the universities, through the work of organisations such as the University of Cambridge Local Examina- tions Syndicate, the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council and the Joint Matriculation Board, run by the universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield.

These organisa- tions drew up syllabuses, appointed examiners and regulated assessment, and were therefore able to control the transition from A-level to higher education by specifying the depth and content of A-level courses. In 1988, however, qualifications became subject to the regulations of the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council, which was merged with the National Curriculum Council in 1993 to become the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority. In 1997, this body was amalga- mated with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to create the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), charged with the accreditation of all academic and vocational qualifications in England and Wales. QCA provides exam boards with the outline for every quali- fication in every subject, and monitors their work to ensure that these are implemented correctly: these outlines are also subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Education.

This increasing centralisation is also reflected in the fact that there are now only four main A-level examining bodies in England and Wales: the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR), the Welsh Joint Educational Committee (WJEC) and the former London board, now called Edexcel. Much attention has been drawn to the effects of this political inter- vention. In Cox on the Battle for the English Curriculum (1995), Brian Cox, chair of the first National Curriculum Working Group for English, documents the attempts made by successive Conservative governments to prescribe certain approaches to the teaching of language and literature, creating a ‘Revised English for Little England’ that privileged Standard English, rote learning and a traditional canon of texts.10 Deborah Cameron has drawn attention to the way in which debates about the teaching of language have been dominated by misconceptions about the nature of grammar, which has been made to act as a metaphor for morality, discipline and social control.11 And Peter Hollindale, former senior lecturer in English and Education at the University of York, has stated that ‘no other subject has attracted such a battery of amateur poli- tical interference, or been subjected to such quango-led manipulations, or excited such displays of ignorance and prejudice’.12 Yet such interfer- ence has not, for the most part, been extended to the universities.

While governments have attempted to impose increasing uniformity on universities in the form of standardised subject benchmarks and the documentation of aims and objectives, university syllabuses are not subjected to the same kind of centralisation as the school curriculum: individual departments are still free to set and examine their own courses, along lines that reflect both the specialisms and the philosophies of their staff and the needs of their students. As a result, a gap has opened up between the heritage-dominated National Curriculum that operates in schools and the multiplicity of forms that the subject takes in higher education. A-level – the bridge between the two – therefore offers itself as a particularly contentious site for debates about the nature of literary study.

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