Preaching to the Converted: on reading Margaret Mathieson’s Preachers of Culture

Partly out of a sense that I don’t know enough about the origins and history of my subject and a desire to clarify what it is I believe an English teacher should be, I’ve just finished a detailed reading of Margaret Mathieson’s Preachers of Culture.

Preachers of Culture: A Study of English and Its Teachers, published in 1975, charts the development of English as a school subject and the construction of its “diffuse” ideology. It’s a fascinating read and provides a valuable account of the differing attitudes towards English as a subject. Mathieson explains the origins of English from basic literacy, the adoption of literature as a subject by the Mechanics’ Institutes and London University, Matthew Arnold’s influence, the influence of classical education, the Newbolt report, progressive influences, F.R. Leavis and the Cambridge School of English, M.A.K. Halliday and post-War linguistics up to the radical theories of the 1970s.

Preachers of Culture shows how each redefinition of English has responded to changing social conditions and attitudes, primarily the First and Second World Wars but also urban development, the growth of schooling and technological changes.

Mathieson contends that the foundations of English were based on the nineteenth century educational debate between classicists and scientific study combined with the influences of Victorian liberals including Matthew Arnold. Concerns that Britain was falling behind educationally drove The 1921 Newbolt Report which – for all intents and purposes – established English in an early form recognisably similar to what is taught today.

A fear of cultural decline and the pernicious influence of capitalism caused English to develop with a distaste of modern society and mass media. Initially, English teachers were urged to be missionaries who would evangelise culture through literature to working class children. Mathieson argues that a burden of responsibility was placed on English teachers through charging them with the task of using literature to (morally) make working class children better people. Progressive thinkers introduced creativity (through writing, drama, mime and dance) as an extension to this.

F.R. Leavis and his followers (in the 1960s David Holbrook and Fred Inglis) had an enormous influence on English teaching in universities and schools. The scholars of the Cambridge School called for “warriors” who would “resist” the developing cultural disintegration (the encroachment of cinema and the popular press on the quality of life) and sought to challenge the “false” emotions engendered by cinema and popular fiction with the great works of literature. Through teaching children to be better critical readers they believed they were sharpening children to be better people and – in I.A. Richards’ view the “fine ordering of responses” engendered a “fine conduct of life. In responding to literature, children needed to use both intellect and emotions. The militaristic terms in which Leavis and his followers spoke conveys their sense of urgency. So, too, does it convey the additional onus on English teachers of “saving” the lives of working class children.

After the Second World War, a developing social interest in the values transmitted through English saw the introduction of different methodologies into English: most importantly the role of speech in the classroom (both in the sense of an awareness of the value of working class speech) as well as discussion. Linguistics sought to reduce the influence of Literature in order to educate working class children in using language more effectively as well as value their own speech. Radical English teachers of the 1970s sought to use the subject to explore issues and challenging existing systems of authority so that English teachers became collaborators.

I’m beginning to realise the impact Leavis had on me when I read him at university. My approach to English teaching has indeed been “diffuse” and, over the years, shifted between progressive ideas about creativity and a vague notions of the value of English (literature) on people. I’ve generally held the view that books enable children to think and feel like other people in a way that almost no other medium can provide (I’m tempted to argue that video games can do this – but that needs more thought on my account). Books – especially poetry – develop different modes of thinking that I have always believed develop people emotionally and intellectually. Like Leavis and Richards, I’ve always seen no separation between “Life” and “Art”. Perhaps this is the influence of my schooling in the 1970s and 1980s where I was undoubtedly taught by English teachers who were influenced by books like English for Maturity and taught me to come to text personally and emotionally. My appreciation of the crucial importance of Literature has always been intuitive. When I trained as an English teacher in the mid-1990s, trainees were being urged to think of ourselves as “facilitators” rather than providing instruction. I’ve retained an element of that in the way I teach English. This might account for the sense of shock I’ve felt in the way English has been corralled into aping classical studies since 2010 and the regret I’ve felt at the pragmatic way I’ve responded.

What have I taken away from reading Preachers of Culture? I’ve got a much firmer grasp of how English ended up as the “diffuse” subject it actually is. I can see the strands of influence from Arnold onwards and I have a much clearer understanding of why certain aspects of English practice are conducted. Above all, Preachers of Culture (along with other books about teaching I’ve read recently) have revivified – to use a Leavisite term – my sense of the values and importance of being an English teacher.

My notes on Preachers of Culture are here: