out of Philology
The study of English
as a university topic is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating only from
the last half of the nineteenth century. And the study of English and
American literature, which in the twentieth century has become the primary
focus of English departments, is a more recent development still. Until
the late nineteenth century university students generally studied rhetoric,
literature and history as represented in Greek and Latin texts, but the
study of "literature" in one's own mother tongue would have
seemed too trivial for a university course. The initial focus of English
studies in the academy was not upon literature but instead upon linguistics,
or "philology." Nineteenth-century philology was a kind of historical
linguistics that developed as a sort of an ideological prop to the modern
nation-state. Philology was concerned to trace the origins of the modern
European languages, and to trace their historical development in ways
that inevitably tended to prove that the language-cultural groups represented
in the various versions of national unity were socially and morally superior
English and Modernity
Thus, the study of
English as an academic discipline is closely related to the characteristic
ideological assumptions of modernity, both good and bad. Here are some
of those relationships, in no particular order:
Nineteenth-century English Studies is tied to the consolidation of
the nation-state that had begun in sixteenth-century Europe and was
being completed in the nineteenth-century. Hence, the major concerns
of linguistic and philological study was on determining the origins,
histories, and relationships among the European languages that served
as the cultural underpinning for nationalistic political ideologies.
The reverse side of the coin of nationalism, also very much a "modern"
phenomenon culturally, politically and economically. The improved
navigational and ship-building technologies of the sixteenth century
and after enabled a new kind of economic organization concentrated
on emerging European nation-states and exploitation of non-European
territories. This precipitated greater contact between the cultures
of Europeans and non-Europeans, thus threatening the linguistic integrity
of the national communities upon which the ideology of nationalism
The extension of the logic of the profit motive to an ever-increasing
sphere of human activity, including, of course the university. This
can be seen affecting English studies fairly directly at least from
the early 20th century, with the inclusion of several waves of new
kinds of vocationally-oriented students in American universities from
the years following World War I to the present. See Gerald Graff's
Professing Literature (on reserve) chapters 3-7 for a more
detailed discussion of this topic.
(4) Mass Literacy:
The spread of printing and the expansion of literacy from the late
15th century onward had significant consequences for language and
culture, including, of course, for the study of English as a university
discipine. In one way or another, the transformations that have swept
over the modern university in the last hundred years are all related
to developments in the kinds and levels of literacy and changes in
literacy requirements among different demographic groups.
(5) The increasing
pervasiveness of science as ideology in modernity: The development
and extension of the scientific method in fields of scholarly inquiry
and also in business and governmental contexts has had a reciprocal
relationship to the way knowledge is organized, produced and disseminated
in the modern university. As one example of this, consider the way
that even such an abstract and humanistic field as literary studies
underwent efforts to produce more scientific scholarship in the 1940s
and 1950s. This can be seen, for example, in the shift from 19th century
historical linguistics to the early 20th century movement of "structural
linguistics" and "semiotics" in the work of Ferdinand
Saussure, Charles S. Peirce and others. It can also be seen even in
the field of literary studies in essays such as Wimsatt and Beardsley's
"The Intentional Fallacy"
(reserve; see also Terry Eagleton's discussion of such work in "The
Rise of English," from this weeks electronic reserve readings).
New Criticism and
the Expansion of the Academy
The intensely "cultural
nationalist" character of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century
English studies gradually gave way after the First World War to a humanistic-aesthetic
focus on literary appreciation. This model of literary study--generally
called "New Criticism" dominated English in the academy until
the last decades of the century. I think it was in some respects an institutional
response to the needs of several successive waves of new demographic populations
of students in the university. In the 1920s many new middle class students
entered American universities as vocational groups who had previously
trained their members as apprentices (such as engineers, architects, accountants,
business managers, and, to some extent, even lawyers and lawyers) began
to encourage young people (mostly young men) to take specific vocational
training in college. In the 1950s there was another wave of expansion
in the student body under the so-called "G. I. Bill"--a government
plan that paid college tuition and living expenses for soldiers returning
from World War II. In the 1960s, under the so-called "Great Society"
legislation of the Johnson administration, an even larger wave of new
students--including many more women and many more minority students--entered
the universities. New Criticism, which had emphasized a socially, historically
and politically detached analysis of the aesthetic features of literary
texts, tended to assume that the reader's individual background was of
no consequence in the reading of literature. In this, it was consistent
with the modernist assumption of a "universal" human nature.
However, these assumptions increasingly faltered under pressure from the
more diverse student populations of the post-sixties academy. And, another
source of pressure on the detached study of literature as English studies
promoted by New Criticism came from a growing emphasis upon directly vocational
training in the academy, and in English departments, in the post-sixties
academy. I have discussed this history in my essays "Gender,
Class and Vocationalism in the Corporate University" and "Curriculum
Mortis". Other texts that address these and similar topics would
include Richard Ohmann's English in America, Evan Watkins' Work
Time, Stanley Aronowitz's The Knowledge Factory, and Bill Readings'
The University in Ruins.
Here in Normal, the
English department at Illinois State University has historically embraced
these challenges of the post-sixties institutional environment as opportunities
to develop a unique locally-defined program. In this response, our program
is rare, perhaps even unique, among among English departments in the U.S.
or abroad. Our institution had a traditional vocational focus, having
begun as a state "normal university," or teacher-training institute,
in 1857. And Illinois State University's expansion during the Great Society
expansion of the 1960s was significant. In 1959 there were about 4,000
students at ISU, and all of them were training to be teachers. There were
a couple of graduate programs in fields like school counseling and school
administration. By 1969, there were over 14,000 students attending what
was then called a "multi-purpose" university, with around 30
graduate programs in a variety of fields. I mention these facts in order
to call your attention to the some of the differences between our university
and the elite institutions that Graff, Eagleton and most of the other
observers who have written about the history of English studies have focused
their discussions upon. Partly as a result of our distinctive institutional
environment, we have developed an English studies model that is less "literature"
and "aesthetics"-- oriented, and more sensitive to the demands
both of vocational education and to the needs of non-traditional college
students--students from demographic groups traditionally excluded from
the elite universities as a result of their class and race, and, in somewhat
more complex ways, their gender.
Here is something
I co-wrote with a group of students a few years ago to describe this phenomenon:
In literary and
composition studies [modernist] neo-Aristotelian concepts such as
the formal integrity of the text and the clear-cut separation of rhetoric
and poetics have obscured the interdependence of text and reader,
thereby reinforcing an oversimplified distinction between the 'public'
and the 'private spheres. Nonetheless, within the limits of modernist
humanism, neo-Aristotelian theories have had some progressive effects.
Their trajectories in literary and composition studies can be plotted
as historically overdetermined responses to the expansion of higher
education after World War II. As opportunities for higher education
were extended to larger numbers of Americans, the basic literacy needs
of incoming college students increased [if I were revising this now
I would write "changed"]. New students entering the expanding
university system as a result of the G. I. Bill, the Great Society,
and the Civil Rights movement were not lacking in general cultural
knowledge. However, their background knowledges were increasingly
those of marginalized subcultures rather than those of a shared consensus
of upper and middle-class values. Finding themseelves in an environment
where their background knowledges were likely to be discounted, the
one element of the dominant culture that they could most readily appropriate
was the [modernist] concept of universalized individualism. Each student's
personal life experience knowledge could be valorized, to some extent,
in the assumption that everyone is an authority on himself or herself,
and that individual experience is intrinsically self-validating.
Hence, at a time
when large numbers of the lower-middle and working classes were gaining
access to higher education for the first time, pedagogies based on
individualism were an empowering force for many first-generation college
students in English studies. These pedagogies took several different
forms. For instance, reader-oriented variations of New Criticism,
developed in books such as Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction,
taught students to read literay texts as repositories of universal
human experience and (somewhat paradoxically) also as a series of
opportunities to affirm their own personal life experiences by association.
This approach allowed some flexibility in interpretation of the literary
text, thereby opening spaces for students differently situated in
their relations to mainstream academic discourse to voice their differences--within
fairly narrow limits imposed by the cultural homogeneity of canonical
authors. [Modernist] Neo-Aristotelian composition theories offering
objective rules or strategies available to all writers and writing
pedagogies focusing on individual self-expression also offered points
of access to academic discourse for non-traditional students. In the
long run, these approaches have proven inadequate to the goal of democratic
empowerment for students under the conditions of late capitalism.
Women and students from marginalized cultural backgrounds were unable
to bring the full scope of their different perspectives to bear on/against
the dominant discourses of the classroom, the discipline, and the
society at large because the literary text or writing process--understoond
as the timeless expression of a universal human experience--set specific
limits on the range of student knowledge and response that could be
credited as relevant. [In modernist English studies] individualism
was promoted as a universal goal, and then defined in such a way as
to exclude the life experiences of students from marginalized groups.
From Ron Strickland,
et al, "Postmodern Pedagogy and the Death of Civic Humanism,"
Social Epistemology vol 11 (1997), 340.
At any rate, this
is perhaps enough to get you started reading Graff, Berlin and Eagleton.
Please read those texts and then post a response to the webboard by Friday
morning, August 30.