What Is English

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What is English?

Section 1

Eagleton (1983) argues that English as a taught subject developed as a means of assuaging the working-class and sustaining social hierarchy at a time when the dictates of religion which had previously ensured working-class citizens’ compliance began to lose credibility. Elaborating, Eagleton suggests that English provided the working class with a sense that they were receiving a “common share of the immaterial” (Eagleton, 1983: 18), thereby subverting their potential to “demand with menaces a communism of the material” (ibid) without undermining the supposed superiority of the “rigours of Greats or philology” (ibid.). More pragmatically, Raymond Williams associates the rise of English “[w]ith the growth of Victorian technology” and a need to create a literate workforce able to “read simple instructions; understand verbal commands; give and receive information” (Williams, in Davison & Dowson, 2003).

In the twentieth century English gained credibility as a “serious discipline” and “the supremely civilizing pursuit” (Eagleton, 1983: 31). Unsurprisingly, then, early attempts to provide a structured framework, such as the Newbolt Report (1921), emphasised English as “a humane education which would be a preparation for ‘life’ not ‘livelihood’” (Fleming & Stevens, 2008: x). Various subsequent attempts have concurred with elements of this, particularly in “the latter half of the 1980s [when] the government sought to … produce an English curriculum founded on notions of correctness, standard English and formal grammar” (Davison & Dowson, 2003: 37). However, more broadly, the structure of English has fluctuated consistently according to what aspects of the subject’s multifaceted concerns were deemed most significant by contemporary legislators. For example, the Bullock report (1975) “condemn[ed] the study of grammar in isolation” (27) but stressed the need to “raise language as a high priority in the complex life of the secondary school” (DES, 1975). In contrast, the Kingman report (1988) sought to redress “the fact that schools no longer taught grammar” (Davison & Dowson, 2003: 29).

These fluctuations were somewhat consolidated by the Cox Report (1989) which categorised the competing ideologies under the headings: personal growth, cross-curricular, adult needs, cultural heritage, and cultural analysis. The Cox Report directly informed the formation of the first National Curriculum (1990) which attempted to incorporate each ideology and whose fundamental premises have remained the same in spite of subsequent attempts to improve and streamline it. Within this ‘Adult needs’ has arguably remained most prevalent, especially considering the broadening of the curriculum to incorporate non-fiction and multi-modality; the purpose of which can be seen as preparing pupils for “a working population that is occupationally more diverse than ever before” (Jones, 2002). With the Curriculum’s 2008 revision even this focus is being balanced by the four Cs stress upon on creativity, competence, and critical and cultural aspects (QCA, 2006).

Section 2

Despite the absence of a publication date within, Ourselves – the English text book I selected from University of Nottingham’s ‘English Museum,’ – its references to ‘contemporary’ figures like Arthur Scargill, Ian Drury, Margaret Thatcher, etc., positions it during the late 1970s, early 1980s. In short, Ourselves is likely to have been informed by the Bullock Report (1975) with its emphasis on “the various functions of language instead of form” (Fleming & Stevens, 2008: xi). This is clear to the extent that it is purged of any information pertaining to grammar, punctuation and spelling. In fact, Ourselves frequently advocates creativity over formal considerations; for example, at one point suggesting, “Ignore everything else and WRITE” (Bethell, unknown: 7).

What Ourselves does require pupils to do is indicative of the Bullock Report’s requirement that pupils