Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Romantics again

I posted earlier on ‘English teaching, Romantics and Moderns’ in the light of Ian Reid’s book on the influence of the Romantics on English teaching. Ian immediately responded, but (like most people) was unable to post his comment -- procedure too cumbrous. Our exchange is now quite old since I've been away for a while but with his permission I reproduce it here, lightly edited.

Ian, 4 September:
Anyway, my lost-in-space comment was mainly to say (1) that I don't disagree with your remarks except that I don't see them as "problems" for my line of argument, just strands in the fabric I've tried to exhibit; and (2) that modernism's lack of significant impact on English teaching shouldn't really be surprising, because it has relatively little resonance (compared to Romanticism) with the self-shaping "sentimental education" that for most teachers and students has continued (albeit with variations) to be the major focus of "English".

Me, 4 September
Good of you to respond, Ian -- thanks.  (1) fair enough.  (2) -- this is not a comment on the book or your response -- it seems to me to take some explaining why people with a literary education and a keen interest in literature, who 'kept up' assiduously with developments in writing -- Britton, Rosen, Dixon -- and who would have been well aware of modernism and would have read the key texts -- were so unaffected by that whole revolution that their belief in the 'sentimental education' you rightly refer to should have continued in such an untroubled way?

When I think of it though I don't remember Harold [Rosen]-- my PGCE tutor who I knew well -- even referring to, let alone getting excited by, any modernist text.  The stuff he liked was Dickens and stirring tales of revolutionary struggle -- Arturo Barea on Spain, Sean O'Casey's autobiographies (lots of autobiographies, in fact -- including Gorki).

In his case, it may have been the right-wing politics of Eliot and Pound and Proust's difficulty (for a start) that put him off  -- but why not Joyce and Kafka?  Though I recall he did read a quite 'difficult' (in a modernist way) poem by Charles Causley with us, and was an admirer of Miroslav Holub -- who I suppose you'd say was in the modernist tradition.  And Britton was keen on Wallace Stevens and Malcolm Lowry.

Perhaps they found certain modernist works ok but didn't buy the whole rejection of, for instance, realist narrative -- nor see any implications in it for English teaching -- so had no hesitation in promoting it in kids' writing in school.  Nothing could be more anti-modernist, come to think of it, that Britton's position (quoting Lady Chatterley) that novels were essentially the same thing as gossip....

Rosen certainly bought into Wordsworth's view of the child and was fascinated by and accorded great value to children's experience -- but I'm sure would have been appalled by Wordsworth's manifesto on education in Book IX of The Excursion, as I was when I read it a few days ago, possibly for the first time -- can't trust my memory now.  How did intelligent people in the 20th century not find that stuff simply silly and offensive?  (I didn't feel that way at all about the Prelude, needless to say, when I re-read it recently.)  You're very clear, though, that Dixon, at least in his Bretton Hall period, was a serious Wordsworthian.  Must ask him about it when I see him next.

Is it just my problem that I'm a bit perplexed by those people's position on modernism? As you can tell, I'm just floundering in all this.  Perhaps they were simply right to stick with the essentially Romantic approach to childhood and education -- and after all there was no modernist position on education in the way that the Romantics -- the movement that it arose in opposition to -- had a view on it -- as they had a view on the state.

Ian on 5th September ends with a very strong point:
Yes, but I suppose another way of understanding the conundrum about modernism is to recognise that (despite some well-known oppositional gestures and dismissive rhetoric) it often tended to intensify certain elements in Romanticism. Think e.g. of Virginia Woolf’s emphasis (and Joyce’s) on epiphanic moments, or Kafka’s on the existential anguish of guilt-ridden individuals, etc.

Much of modernism could thus be seen in Harold Bloom’s terms as a combat with its inescapably influential Romantic parent.

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