Prospective English Concentrators

I was speaking to a Professor of English at Harvard last week about literary studies. He talked about how the humanities teach us self-knowledge, as opposed to science studying the objective world. He spoke about the place of literary studies in a general education, and the value of learning to appreciate great works.

This discussion set me wondering about English at Harvard, so I went over to the department’s website and found a page intended for ‘Prospective English Concentrators’. My sketchy idea of Harvard’s intellectual principles is that it is influenced by pragmatism, which stresses knowledge gained through action in the everyday world rather than unworldly, abstract ideas. You would expect the Harvard department to emphasize method and practice of literary interpretation, and sure enough, the department chair talks about gaining skills to discover how we communicate and generate meaning in language:

‘We read literary texts because literature is where the meanings are. So how do we get at those meanings? We teach students what imaginative works mean, by teaching how they mean, by teaching how meaning is embedded in form. Accordingly, we transmit the skills of interpretation.’

What about other departments? Well, the page directed at potential undergraduates at the Oxford English Faculty talks more about ‘getting to know’ our cultural heritage:

‘You will get to know the writings of particular authors, movements, and periods in great detail and develop your own interests in English literature and language – interests that we hope will remain with you for the rest of your life. This kind of study affords a unique way of appreciating the cultural history of England and other countries in which English has been a major literary medium.
An English degree will equip you with analytical and writing skills that are readily transferable into many other situations and many professions.’

Finally, I jumped across to the Cambridge English Faculty:

‘The Cambridge English Tripos [i.e. degree] has the following aims, among others: to stimulate in its students original thinking and critical habits of mind; to develop the ability to construct an argument, both oral and written; to foster an unusual sensitivity to language; to provide a broad knowledge of the development of English literature which will enable students to understand how writers work within and against literary traditions; to create awareness of the historical dimension of literary works; and to provide a comparative dimension for the study of literature in English, by study of literature in other languages, or of philosophical works which handle ideas in a non-literary mode.
All students of English acquire knowledge that enriches their lives forever.’

You could find equally fine descriptions of studying English at other British universities like York, Manchester, Queen Mary or Glasgow. The reason I pick on Oxbridge here is partly because that’s where my experience is, and partly because they have large departments that are generally thought to have distinctive principles of studying literature (not that other departments don’t): Cambridge is traditionally associated with close reading and ‘practical criticism’, while Oxford concentrates on historical fact and what literature teaches us about the world (i.e., is more scientific). This contrast is useful when thinking about the research output of different universities. But in these descriptions there is more agreement than disagreement about literary studies: reading and arguing closely, gaining a life-enhancing skill using in the working world and learning about English-language culture are common to each. This makes for a challenging undergraduate course, but it is what is going in school English lessons too. Academic research helps support these activities.

One lesson from all this is not to exaggerate differences between institutions. Although one department may specialize in a particular approach, the subject remains basically the same. Debates within the subject don’t mean that the discipline itself is on uncertain ground: studying English at school or university makes you better equipped to assess and appreciate language and culture.


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