It is approaching 100 years since Sir Henry Newbolt was commissioned to write his report The Teaching of English in England. Following closely on the heels of Fisher’s Education Act, which sought in the immediate wake of the First World War to extend the duration, availability and quality of educational provision and also the establishment of the first English Literature tripos at Cambridge, Newbolt sought to establish a new function and direction for English as a subject in the twentieth century.
In terms strikingly relevant to our own era, he observes that “others, urging that knowledge is power, load the youthful mind with more than it can properly assimilate”, that “Learning by doing is another concurrent educational gospel” (54) and that “there is a danger that a true instinct for humanism may be smothered by the demand for measurable results, especially the passing of examinations in a variety of subjects…” (56). Newbolt called for a re-conception of “the full meaning and possibilities of national education as a whole” and advocated the central role of literary education in bridging “the social chasms which divide us”.
The function of this special edition of English in Education, on the eve of the Newbolt centenary, is to (re-)consider the issues and agendas facing those who teach English in the early twenty-first century. In the light of Newbolt’s construction of the subject, how should today’s teachers of English consider:
- the demands and role of high stakes assessment
- a re-narrowing of the literary curriculum
- a continuous sequence of education reform
- targets related to social mobility, class and widening participation
- contingent questions about the function of literature and the arts in education.
Significant issues also emerge surrounding the promotion of community cohesion, and around the ways in which technological advances might be reshaping what constitutes appropriate literary education. What are the contemporary aims of education in English and of literary education? Where do Classics, the literary canon and works from other literatures around the world fit into current views of what constitutes the study of English? How are new forms in screen and other media considered in relation to notions of the literary? What role, if any, should literary education have in the moral formation of children and young people?
This special edition offers a pivotal opportunity to consider the extent to which English has changed or resisted change in the 100 years since Newbolt, and how far this in fact reflects the needs of English in the twenty-first century.
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