Just got an email from a student at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont inviting me to contribute a brief statement on ‘What is English?’, for some documentary she’s making. I dashed off the following. It doesn’t fulfil the brief but gives expression to stuff I've been thinking and reading recently.
English teaching in its essentials went on before there was any such subject. At Hawkshead Grammar School in the 1780s Wordsworth’s teachers of classics, maths, science, whatever, put books his way — often their own precious copies -- and especially contemporary poetry; they encouraged his own poetry writing and provided a good library. William Hazlitt arriving at Hackney (Dissenting) Academy a few years later and at about the same age, failing to submit a written assignment and under questioning from his teacher, explained that he was already writing his own substantial essay on the foundations of moral life and was invited to continue that and skip the official assignments, simply showing his drafts every so often. The point is, ‘English’ in each case recognised and supported a basic need to explore thoughts and ideas and to find a voice.
English essentially recognises what should be, could be and often is going on anyway: discovering literature (broadly defined) and having recourse to writing and talking as means of discovering and exploring ideas, of understanding the world and of finding and making expressions of one’s experience of it. In the 19th century plenty of working people made their own breakthrough into such an intellectual life, but English teachers can promote it (when they’re not preventing it). At best they lead students to possibilities, helping them get better at literate pursuits and engage with the society’s public discourses.
English belongs in the Enlightenment project — the Enlightenment as in Locke, Hume and Adam Smith and not Bentham, and as broadened by Romanticism to encompass imagination.