‘English as a Subject’ published

The Routledge Companion to English Studies, edited by Brian Street and Constant Leung, has just been published. My chapter (rather worryingly Chapter 1) is ‘English as a Subject’ and (in a measly 5000 words or less) tries to cover some of the history of the subject English in schools and universities, with a particular focus on how the language English figures in constructions of the subject in anglophone countries, especially in relation to the study of literature.

To try to achieve this near impossible feat, I chose to focus on two contrasting stories about the emergence of English as a subject: first, the story of English as an instrument of colonial and class domination; second, the story of English as a progresssive project of social transformation. The first of these will be familiar to many who know the literature on linguistic imperialism and the role of English in creating loyal English ‘subjects’ in different parts of the former empire. I also draw on the related research about the role of English in enforcing a social standard within the British isles, particularly in relation to the working class and the role of literature, especially Shakespeare, in establishing ‘middle class’ cultural norms. Alan Sinfield’s fantastic work was very useful in this respect.

Harold Rosen, former head of English at Walworth School and Professor of English at the Institute of Education
The late Harold Rosen, former head of English at Walworth School and Professor of English at the Institute of Education

The second story concerns the relationship between the development of English and the expansion of higher education towards the end of the nineteenth century and the transformation of secondary education for the masses in the mid-twentieth. I refer to the work of Australians Ian Hunter and Ian Reid but also that of John Dixon and, more recently, John Hardcastle and Peter Medway, who have been researching the histories of the practices of English teaching in a few influential London schools and its relationship to the work of teacher educators and researchers at the London Institute of Education. A key figure in their analysis is Harold Rosen (the father of Michael). The story here is one of a more democratic view of language and a consistently socially transformative view of pedagogy. It is story in which the language and the literature studied in English could be that of the students, the children themselves.

Neither story is ‘the truth’, of course. It’s about the stories themselves and where they came from and how they are told. But somewhere in the midst of this contradiction of domination and development lives English as a subject and, as I argue, the very model of a modern subject.

You can download a PDF of ‘English as a Subject’ in the Chapters section. It was incredibly badly copy-edited by Routledge with new sub-headings inserted against my wishes. So apologies in advance for that sort of nonsense.