Literary Criticism

The resistance to knowledge

The reluctance of AQA Specification A to embrace the critical and theo- retical possibilities of the new subject criteria came as no real surprise. Since the new specifications were launched, there have been a number of objections to the critical principles they represent: to the idea that the study of literature should involve anything other than a personal encounter with the text. This strand of complaint bears a number of similarities to the resistance to academic literary study mounted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and as such, it is worth exploring in detail. What is perhaps most noteworthy is the way in which this resistance relies on an extremely reductive view of the knowledge associated with scholarship, and on a naïve elevation of the ‘personal canons of truth’ identified with criticism.

The impossibility, for the resistance movement, of resolving the opposition between these kinds of knowledge serves ultimately to isolate A-level English Literature from other A-level subjects. It seems that as far as this movement is concerned, English Literature should be able to justify itself solely on heuristic grounds, without needing the same epistemological basis as other disciplines. Much of the hostility towards the new specifications has focused on AOs 4 and 5, and their emphasis on the contexts of reading and writing. For some, these objectives marked a very clear desire to encourage a view of literature that was informed by a sense of historicity and plurality: the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA board (OCR) stated that teachers ‘must be aware of the developing scope of literary studies, and the new emphases that have resulted’.59 Yet this view of literary study was not universally welcomed. Mike Craddock, in an article in The Use of English, argued that the post-structuralist view of the text as a product of its contexts threatened the special status of literature as a ‘transcendent object of value’.

60 The reading of literary criticism also came under attack. For Richard Hoyes, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, it encouraged a misplaced focus on secondary sources: students would spend so much time reading ‘books about books’ that they would forget about the books themselves.61 Mike Craddock, meanwhile, saw it not as part of a legitimate study of alternative interpretations, but as a way of depriving students of their own voices, providing ‘ready-made answers’ that would ‘pop up in essays’ as ‘mangled critical truisms’.62 To encourage such reading was, effectively, to acquiesce in a form of spoon-feeding to which Craddock was passionately opposed: if students were to be engaged in ‘the search for something more than a materialist world and consumerist age offers them’, then they should be ‘involved in that search so that they can find their own meanings and identities, not just [told] what to think’.63 Such views often display a problematic lack of awareness of their own ideological foundations. When Craddock urges the downgrading of contextual knowledge in favour of an understanding of the ‘meanings, dreams, identities, realities, truths of one sort or another that we care about and need’, he seems unaware of the totalising effect of his use of the plural pronoun: the fact that ‘we’ might not care about and need the same meanings, dreams and realities does not enter into his discussion.64 Similarly, Craddock’s belief that literature should be presented as some- thing that students ‘can own and make their own in a personal and creative engagement’65 is not accompanied by any sense of the contexts by which these readings themselves are shaped, not the least of which is the institutional context represented by both individual schools and the wider educational system: it is difficult to imagine any reading produced in this context that is genuinely the student’s ‘own’. In addition, both Craddock and Hoyes offer a drastically simplistic view of the knowledge represented by the study of historical and critical contexts, suggesting as they do that such knowledge cannot possibly be utilised in any meaningful way. It is true that the reading of secondary sources presents teachers and students with a number of problems, and that students need to be introduced to ways of handling these sources that will not prevent them from articulating their own interpretations and drawing their own conclusions.

But in this respect English Literature is no different from a wide range of other subjects – subjects which, signif- icantly, locate themselves very clearly within a body of academic know- ledge. The AQA specification for A-level History endeavours to enable candidates to ‘understand the nature of historical evidence and the methods used by historians in analysis and evaluation’. It expects that students will develop the ability to read secondary sources – including academic monographs – in a ‘discriminating and evaluative manner’.66 The same board’s A-level in Religious Studies aims to ‘treat the subject as an academic discipline by developing knowledge and understanding appropriate to a specialist study of religion’. This knowledge includes an awareness of ‘the contribution of modern scholarship’, and an understanding of how different critical approaches can be applied to Biblical sources.67 It appears, then, that the concept of specialist knowledge occupies a much more vexed position in A-level English Literature than it does in other disciplines. Indeed, the distinction between academic specialisation and student-centred subjectivity seems so great that the possibility of a form of study that is alert to the student’s own emotional life (and to what Derek Attridge has described as the ‘singularity’ of literature68) yet grounded in clear disciplinary thinking often appears to be very distant.

Yet here again, there is a contrast between English Literature and other disciplines. The AQA specification for A-level Religious Studies states openly that the subject provides opportunities to ‘address human experi- ences of transcendence, awe, wonder and mystery’, and to ‘explore their own beliefs, creative abilities, insights, self-identity, and self-worth’. Importantly, it sees no contradiction between such aims and the desire for students to take part in a ‘rigorous study of religion’.69 Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that many students of A-level English Language gain a strong sense of personal empowerment through the academic study of linguistic variation, which enables them to examine the place of language in their own relationships and communities, and to question the stereotypes imposed by prescriptive notions of ‘correctness’ (a process that seems all the more empowering from being rooted in academic evidence and debate, rather than simply the opinions of the layperson). However, in debates about A-level English Literature, the personal and the academic seem perpetually set at odds, as though there can be no possibility of a growth that occurs because of specialist knowledge, rather than being hindered by it.

Fortunately, such growth is made possible, every day, in the way in which the subject is ‘actualised’ in individual classrooms by individual teachers; and it seems that this ‘actualisation’ – a term that encom- passes the pedagogical, intellectual and social choices that are made in bringing an academic discipline to life – would benefit from further consideration, in order to encourage a discussion of the processes by which the notoriously elusive practice of criticism is translated into particular readings of particular texts.

Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (2003) calls for attention to ‘the day-to-day life of the literature classroom’ – and the pedagogical processes that underpin this life – as part of an exploration of how we teach students to ‘think in the discipline’: how we initiate them into the processes of reading, interpreting, questioning, dissenting and synthesising that make up the act of criticism, and how we find a place within these activities for our students’ imaginative and emotional lives.70 Philip Smallwood, meanwhile, has argued for the need to see the student critic as part of an extended community of critics in both the past and the present, and to draw on the support that this ‘wider culture of criticism’ can offer in enabling students to find their own critical voices and perspectives.71 Such perspectives offer scope for a discussion of pedagogical processes (at both secondary and degree level) that engages with both the needs of students and the demands of academic specialisation, avoiding the two extremes (of bureaucratic performance descriptors on the one hand, and liberal subjectivity on the other) that have dominated many recent debates about English Literature at A-level. In short, what they address is how students can be given ‘epistemological access’72 to the discipline of English – a process that is clearly in need of attention.

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