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The Idea of an English School: Literature, Politics, and the University, 1932-1965

Alexander Hutton, a Research Associate at King’s College London, spoke on the ways in which English Literature education was used as a means of training a social democratic elite capable of creating and maintaining the welfare state in mid twentieth-century Britain.

Focusing on the careers of three individual English academics – L.C. Knights at Manchester and Bristol; Bonamy Dobrée at Leeds and F.W. Bateson at Oxford, the talk demonstrated how each of them engaged with radical social democratic politics during the 1930s and 1940s, and how these interactions reshaped their conception of the subject and its wider social relevance. For example, L.C. Knights taught adult education classes in industrial Lancashire as well as raising money for Republican Spain through selling jam, and Bonamy Dobrée was a leading figure of the cultural Popular Front of the 1930s, whereas F.W. Bateson worked as a Labour Party activist and became a major spokesman on socialist agricultural policies.

These interventions with leftist politics caused the three figures to rethink the purpose of English Literature within society and, in their respective universities, to rethink the syllabus in terms of literature’s relationship to the wider problems of group living, its possibilities of critiquing a capitalist society, and its possibilities in training a humane elite of teachers, adult education tutors, writers, journalists, civil servants, arts administrators and academics.

These figures, to a greater or lesser extent, set about reforming syllabuses at their universities in terms of exposing English students to wider contexts such as history or sociology. They each wrote manifestoes on this, such as Dobrée’s 1943 Universities and Regional Life, where the post-war provincial university was an essential tool for democracy, acting as a bastion of cultural value in places often lacking cultural and intellectual life. Universities had to become leading ‘propagandists’ for social change and ‘the good life…so they can help to mould the new industrial civilization in which the century of the common man will find its being.’

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Above and below: Basil Spence’s designs for the University of Sussex

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F.W. Bateson, who met with stiff resistance at Oxford (where the department was dominated by figures such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein who rejected the notion that literature should have a social function or that it was particularly relevant to the modern world) was instrumental in founding the journal Essays in Criticism (1951-) as well as the Oxford Critical Society. These acted as an ‘insurgent’ Oxford English School, foregrounding the work of younger critics and writers, many of whom were taught by Bateson, including Al Alvarez, Kingsley Amis, Bernard Bergonzi, Stuart Hall, John Holloway, Philip Larkin, W.W. Robson, John Wain, and Raymond Williams.

The paper concluded by looking at David Daiches’ creation of the new English School at the University of Sussex. Though Daiches had repudiated his youthful Marxism, which produced his first book Literature and Society (1938), he remained committed to the idea that literature teaching must be relevant, which went on to underpin the Sussex ‘core and context’ system, set out in Daiches’ The Idea of a New University (1964), which prepared graduates to become vital contributors to modern technological society.

Whilst these visions were ultimately limited, and generally failed to withstand critiques from Marxist, feminist or Post-colonial perspectives, they were important parts of the reshaping of the subject in the context of university reforms in the pre-Robbins era.

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