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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.’

sussex 1

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

Sussex 2

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.

Asking the wrong questions?

Jonathan Doney is a post-doctoral Research Fellow and Associate Lecturer at the University of Exeter, an Associate Lecturer at the University of Winchester, and an Honorary Associate of the International Centre for Historical Research in Education (ICHRE) at UCL’s Institute of Education. He recently gave a lunchtime seminar on his ESRC funded doctoral work. His project (That would be an ecumenical matter) centres on the ways in which a focus on the discourses of ecumenism enriches understandings of how the adoption of the Study of World Religions became possible in English Religious Education during the 1960s and 1970s.

Speaking to the title: ‘”I’m sorry, I can’t give you an answer. I’m dealing with different questions.” Post-structural Methods and Histories of Curriculum Development’, Jonathan explained the way in which the history of education often focuses on events and their significance, asking ‘what happened?, what does it mean?’.

Picture1His doctoral work takes another direction, and concentrates on a different question. Influenced by the historical work of Michel Foucault, particularly his work on the History of Ideas, Jonathan has become interested in ‘how certain practices become possible’.


In his talk, Jonathan described the development of a new methodology, which he has called ‘Statement Archaeology’. Beginning with the foundational notions which Foucault describes in his work, (especially the necessity of emphasizing ‘statement’, ‘relative beginnings’ and ‘moments of discontinuity’), Jonathan described how the operationalization of the method has worked in the context of his doctoral study through the application of a series of principles which guide the gathering of statements, and a number of indicative questions asked of the statements so gathered. He exemplified these steps in practice through the discussion of one particular area of his doctoral research.


Picture2The inclusion in Schools Council Working Paper 36 – Religious Education in the Secondary School (published 1971) of statements repeated from supranational and national ecumenical discourses have hitherto been overlooked. Through a detailed exploration of the origins and provenance of these statements, using Statement Archaeology, Jonathan demonstrated the efficacy of his method, showing that the inclusion of the ecumenical context enriches understandings of how the adoption of World Religions Teaching became possible in English Religious Education during the 1960s and 1970s.



Thomas Hill Green and Local Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Britain

Tom Hulme writes about the influence of the Victorian idealist philosopher Thomas Hill Green following his Lunchtime seminar paper earlier this year

Earlier this year I was very happy to be invited to the UCL Institute of Education to give a paper as part of their History of Education Lunchtime Seminars. I had not been living and working in London long, so it was a new place for me – and a nice surprise! I gave a talk titled (rather drily!), Thomas Hill Green and Local Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Britain.

Thomas Hill GreenThe paper was about the lasting influence of the Victorian idealist philosopher Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882) in the application of citizenship education, and the specifically local and urban articulation that this took. Despite the tendency for historians to view citizenship through the prism of the national or imperial, it was actually common for both children and adults to be taught that it was in the local, and the city especially, that the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were received and enacted. Using Green’s justification for state intervention to ensure individual liberty, educators argued that municipal government was the guardian of the life and health of individuals and communities—an educational approach they termed civics. These ideas were prominent in the organizations that provided civics in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the National Association of Local Government Officers and the Association for Education in Citizenship. If anyone is interested in seeing the ‘finished article’, they can find it here, in Twentieth Century British History!

I was really pleased with the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience– I don’t really come from a history of education background, but I felt like my work had found a natural home. I was given lots of new ideas, and plenty of food for thought. Was there a big difference between how civics was taught to boys and girls? Was civics only a state-elementary school subject, or was it also prominent in public school? At some point I will definitely return to these questions; even though I had finished the article before the paper, it now already needs to be expanded!

tom_hulmeTom Hulme is Early Career Lecturer in Urban History at the Centre for Metropolitan History. His research looks at the relationship between cities and citizenship in Britain and North America in the first half of the twentieth century.


See our seminars page for the upcoming papers.

The Left Book Club and adult education in Britain and Australia

Chloe Ward, from the University of Melbourne, recently presented at one of our lunchtime seminars. Her thesis is on the transnational history of the Left Book Club. You can follow Chloe on Twitter @doctorchlod

The Left Book Club (LBC), a subscription book club founded in 1936 by Victor Gollancz, has been seen by historians as, variously, a publishing enterprise, a communist front organisation, a British Popular Front and an educational agency. Historians have rarely explored its transnational connections. Last Thursday, I gave a paper at the ICHRE lunchtime seminar series exploring the LBC’s links with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Britain and Australia.


[Worker, 30 August 1938, 2]

In Britain, the LBC’s association with the WEA was informal. WEA tutors like the future Labour MP Stephen Swingler led its local discussion groups and political campaigns. Leading figures in the WEA warned against too close an involvement with the LBC because of its association with the Communist Party. In 1937 WE Williams, editor of the WEA journal The Highway warned that this ‘energetic ally of adult education’ risked abandoning its liberal, pluralistic agenda as it hurried its members to conclusions ‘by taking the short cut along the left fork’.[1]

In Australia, the WEA established formal links with the Club. The WEA’s NSW director, David Stewart, took up a joint agency for the Club with the Sydney Anvil Bookshop in 1937. In 1938 Stewart faced down demands from the Catholic Press for the WEA, a state-funded body, to cease cooperating with the Club. Stewart explained publicly that the Club fulfilled an indispensable role for working-class readers and WEA students. It provided them cheap, quality books that would otherwise have either been unavailable in Australia.[2]

The differences between the WEA’s attitude to the LBC in Britain and Australia, I argued, reflect their independent political and philosophical trajectories since Albert Mansbridge founded the Australian WEA in 1913. In Britain, the WEA defended its position as a liberal and ‘non-political’ institution against the left. In Australia, the WEA was more closely entwined with left-wing politics. They also demonstrate the great degree to which the book trade shaped the WEA’s collaboration with other organisations. Adult educators warmly welcomed the LBC’s cheap, informative books to an Australian market dominated by the British book trade.


[1] WE Williams, ‘Notes and Comments’, The Highway, April 1937, 173-174.

[2] David Stewart, ‘The Left Book Club: W.E.A.’s Reply’, The Catholic Press, 8 September 1938, 13.

Schools of the 21st century- safe havens or dangerous places for our children?

In his article for ‘The Conversation’, ICHRE Director Gary McCulloch discusses the continuing effect of a series of reforms begun in the early 20th century to support the welfare of children: