The difficulty with an “English department”

In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), John Gross describes the troubles associated with turning English literature into an academic discipline, as that problem was understood in Britain in the late nineteenth century, where the experiment was first attempted:

How do you organize the wholesale teaching of imaginative literature, without putting the bird in a cage? How do you construct a syllabus out of the heart’s affections, or award marks for wit and sensitivity? Candidates will be expected to show a knowledge of human nature—which, human nature being what it is, represents an open invitation to wander on at random, to drain the subject of intellectual content. And since nobody wants that, a strong countervailing current is inevitably set in motion. Teachers turn with relief to the small, hard, ascertainable fact; they become preoccupied with sources, or analogues, or backgrounds, or textual cruces, or other interesting but secondary considerations. Such problems are of course by no means unique to English studies. They exist in many other academic fields as well. But they do present themselves with peculiar force and intimacy when studying the literature of one’s native language, and it could be argued that, armed as we are with microfilm and computer, we have not entirely solved them even now.

One thought on “The difficulty with an “English department””

  1. Interesting post at The Valve on related or tangential anyway topics: "Among the Disciplines: Literary Science?." Was "literature once at the center of American culture life"? And what about Northrop Frye's attempts to make criticism into a science?

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