Friday, 2 September 2011

English teaching, Romantics and Moderns

I've been carefully re-reading, for our history of English project, Ian Reid’s Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies. It’s of particular interest because there’s an extended discussion of English at Walworth/Mina Road School in the 1950s and 60s, including accounts of some key teachers: Arthur Harvey, Harold Rosen and John Dixon.

His claim is that all these teachers, and teacher-educators at the Institute of Education and King’s, right back to John Dover Wilson and including Percival Gurrey and James Britton, were heavily influenced by Romantic values and ideas that sprang originally from Wordsworth’s poetry. The problems with his story are, first, that these people, for all that they had in common, had many important differences and were influenced, differently, by ideas that came from places quite other than Romanticism, and second that -- as Reid fully acknowledges -- Romantic ideas had been so thoroughly absorbed that they were no longer felt to be ideas or a theory but were simply the common-sense air that everyone breathed. How could a thinking English teacher not have been a Romantic if that was what you were if you didn’t espouse some moribund and atheoretical hangover from Augustan convention and classical rhetoric?

A question that continues to intrigue me -- it falls outside Reid’s remit -- was not how teachers were (still) influenced by Wordsworth but what they made of the liveliest literary movement of their own century, Modernism. If university-educated English teachers were a key group within that part of the society that seriously read literature, how can their work have been, to all appearances, so utterly unaffected by Ulysses, Kafka and Pound? Eliot got in there through certain exam syllabuses, maybe some Yeats too, but, as far as I can see, few others. Gabriel Josipovici (click on his name in the labels at the side) complains that British novelists still continue to write in nineteenth century genres. Well, it seems accordingly that kids in English lessons wrote nineteenth century narratives and Romantic poetry, as if the vast upheaval of Modernism had never taken place.

It’s possible to think of explanations. For instance, it’s not easy to see what teachers could have done with Modernism if they’d wanted seriously to build it in, in setting writing tasks, for instance; it may be that Modernist texts are simply too difficult for younger readers; or the Modernists’ sense of the exhaustion and irrelevance of nineteenth century forms wasn’t and couldn’t be shared by readers who hadn’t read enough of it to have grown weary.

No comments: