Teaching Culture: The Missionary Position

The attempt to civilize the uncultured masses is coming back into style. I look back to the Leavisite approach to popular culture, and its place in the history of English teaching.

 

Following up on my occasional forays into the history of English and media education in the UK, I have been excavating some relics from the even more distant past. After a series of posts on key texts from the early 1960s – the books Discrimination and Popular Culture and The Popular Arts, and the early work of Raymond Williams – I’m now looking back three decades earlier, to the origins of the educational interest in media and popular culture.

I’ve been re-reading two key works that exemplify the approach associated with Britain’s leading twentieth century literary critic, F.R. (Frank) Leavis, and the journal Scrutiny, which he edited: Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness by Leavis and Denys Thompson, published in 1933, and Fiction and the Reading Public by Leavis’s wife and former student Q.D. (Queenie) Leavis, published the previous year. I’ve also been informed by Christopher Hilliard’s meticulous and exemplary history of the Scrutiny movement, English as a Vocation, and Francis Mulhern’s much earlier book The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’.

These books make interesting reading today, not least in light of policy-makers’ attempts to return to a ‘traditionalist’ approach to English teaching – although the main reference point for Michael Gove and his followers here has been Matthew Arnold, one of Leavis’s prime inspirations, rather than Leavis himself. English Literature, as an optional specialist subject at the top end of secondary schools, is currently in significant decline in England, for several reasons. In this context, it’s almost shocking to look back to its early foundations, and the powerful sense of cultural mission and vocation that it proclaimed and inspired.

What’s particularly interesting from the point of view of media educators is how, even at this very early stage, English was partly defined by what it was not. It wasn’t just about teaching a prescribed canon of great literary works, but also about differentiating them from what was seen as a rising tide of popular commercial trash, in the form of advertising, journalism and mass-market fiction. Although the word ‘media’ wasn’t used, media were clearly regarded as the necessary Other: the opposite that English required in order to define itself and its own purpose.

 

Scrutinizing cultural theory

The Scrutiny movement can be seen as a peculiarly British (or indeed English) reaction to modernity. Writing in 1968, the New Left theorist Perry Anderson puzzled over why literary criticism, and the work of Leavis in particular, had been so influential in British national culture. He suggested that this reflected the wider lack of any ‘general theory of society’, as compared with the situation in many other European countries. Francis Mulhern, in his history of the movement, suggests that the Leavisite approach ultimately refused or repressed politics, again in a particularly English way.

However, the movement was always much more than a matter of literary criticism. It was also, perhaps primarily, an educational project with much broader social and cultural aims. As Christopher Hilliard puts it, it was based on ‘a conviction that literary training was a moral discipline, holding out the prospect of fortifying citizens against the seductions of mass culture, the most ominous of which was the corruption of feeling and desire’.

On re-reading some of the key texts – particularly Leavis’s ‘manifesto’ Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930) – it’s not hard to identify some striking parallels with the forms of Marxist theory being developed at the same time by the scholars of the Frankfurt School in Germany. Of course, Leavis and his associates were by no means Marxists: their complaints were directed not so much against capitalism as against democracy, and they frequently lamented the ‘collapse of authority’ in the modern world. Nevertheless, their criticisms of the contemporary culture industries – and their preference for ‘authentic’ high culture – have much in common with the arguments of (for example) Adorno and Horkheimer, whose Dialectic of Enlightenment was first published in 1944.

Like the theories of many (though not all) in the Frankfurt School, Leavisism is a theory of cultural decline. It laments the impact of industrialisation and the loss of the ‘organic’ rural community; it bemoans the decay of language and the commercialisation of authentic culture; and it condemns the empty materialism and consumerism of modern life. Americanization, advertising, and mass production have apparently led to growing conformity, and a fundamental ‘hollowing out’ of humanity.

There is obviously a kind of nostalgic golden age-ism at work here. The Leavisites’ account of what life was like before the advent of the ‘machine age’ rests on very limited evidence (two long-forgotten, and highly romantic, books by George Sturt about pre-industrial village life are cited repeatedly); while their analysis of the emptiness of modern culture rests on American pop sociology. Yet these narrow sources appear to sanction a kind of grandiose, all-encompassing despair about the collapse of modern civilization.

Q.D. Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public is the movement’s most extensive and detailed analysis of the cultural industries. It focuses primarily on journalism and fiction, drawing on historical accounts as well as data from contemporary industry studies. Its account of the political economy of the publishing business and the stratification of the market qualifies it as a very early instance of academic media research. As well as publishers, Leavis considers the role of what we would now call cultural intermediaries such as book reviewers, promoters and retailers. I doubt that many university English Literature courses tackle such issues, even today.

Yet as an example of media research, the book has some serious shortcomings. Leavis persistently makes unwarranted assertions about audiences (and about the effects of these media) on the basis of her assertions about texts and about media production. She refers very broadly to the values that she perceives to be missing from mass culture, and assumes that they will be automatically recognised and shared by her readers; yet she never really articulates what they are. There is undoubtedly a ‘theory’ and indeed a ‘politics’ here (and it’s not a million miles away from Adorno), but it’s one that is not clearly argued or supported with evidence.

The analysis is further skewed by Leavis’s class snobbery, and indeed by her disdain for the crude tastes of the ignorant masses – or what she calls the ‘herd instinct’. Her view of these forms of ‘mass culture’ is sardonic and dismissive. She rails against what she sees as sensationalism, sentimentality, dilettantism, and self-indulgent, ‘false’ emotionalism. Mass culture is apparently standardised and homogeneous: it appeals to the lowest common denominator by celebrating anti-intellectual prejudices. If anything, she is more horrified in this respect by ‘middlebrow’ novelists (Galsworthy, Priestley, Walpole) than by ‘pulp’, mass-market fiction.

There is no attempt to explain the appeal of such material, beyond seeing it as a form of easy escapism: it represents a compensation for ‘the poverty of very many people’s emotional lives’, but it is ultimately a form of manipulation. Popular fiction, she avers, is a form of ‘drug addiction’; while advertising and films are, for the most part, merely ‘masturbatory’. ‘A habit of fantasying,’ she asserts, ‘will lead to maladjustment in actual life’. Meanwhile, the group of ‘serious’ writers who constitute true ‘minority culture’ – and on whom the future of civilization rests – remains very small indeed.

Ultimately, literary taste is seen here, not just as a matter of aesthetic quality, but of psychology, morality and even spirituality. The idea of ‘true feeling’ or ‘sensibility’ occupies a central place in this account, but it is asserted rather than adequately defined. Those who fail to appreciate great literature, or are simply not exposed to it, are implicitly seen as emotionally immature, as superficial, and even as psychically ‘unhealthy’. By contrast, reading great literature is essentially humanizing: it just makes you a better person.

 

The mission of English

As I’ve suggested, the Scrutiny movement was not only an academic project, aimed at the elite minority: it was also an educational one. At the end of Fiction and the Reading Public, Q.D. Leavis points to the need for ‘resistance by an armed and conscious minority’. Education, ‘fired by a missionary spirit’, is the primary means of achieving this: it should involve ‘the training of a picked few who would go out into the world equipped for the work of forming and organising a conscious minority’. As Christopher Hilliard’s research shows in great detail, the aim was to establish English as a legitimate field of study not just in universities, but also in schools. In this wider mission, the ‘capillaries’ of its influence spread far and wide, not least through networks of training colleges, publications and teachers’ associations.

As I’ve described in an earlier post, F.R. Leavis’s former student Denys Thompson was a key figure – and indeed a tireless disciple – in this respect. Their jointly-authored book Culture and Environment was enormously influential. Intended as a school textbook aimed at older children (Thompson was still a schoolteacher at the time), it was still being reprinted and used in classrooms well into the early 1960s. Yet it is an astonishingly scrappy book, which for the most part is little more than a collection of quotations. Its opening chapters contain some re-statements of the ‘mission’, but there is no systematic framework or set of analytical tools that might prove teachable. It comes as little surprise to learn (from Hilliard) that the book was assembled in about a week, largely using quotations from Scrutiny and from other recommended books of the time.

There were two related aspects of this educational project. The first entailed training in ‘practical criticism’ – an approach to the close reading of texts initially developed by I.A. Richards; while the second entailed a much broader (and considerably less forensic) approach to instances of popular culture, such as popular fiction, advertising copy and journalism. One widely-used classroom technique was that of comparing extracts taken out of context (and hence unattributed) in a kind of ‘blindfold test’: passages of great literary works, transcribed onto duplicated sheets, would be set alongside extracts from popular fiction, and students were invited to compare and contrast – and, in effect, to sort the wheat from the chaff. (This technique was still being used by early exponents of Cultural Studies like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart in their adult education classes in the mid-1950s.) The Scrutineers assumed that the outcomes of this technique were guaranteed: the inherent aesthetic and moral superiority of some texts or authors would be self-evident. 

Culture and Environment offers very little in the way of close reading, however. Its opening chapters restate the basic critique of ‘mass culture’, in stark terms: it protests against the ‘genial bloodthirstiness’ of advertising, the levelling down of taste, and the ‘crude emotional falsity’ and vulgarity of popular literature. The standardisation of culture, it argues, leads to the standardisation of people: ordinary people are described as ‘automata’, who lack a ‘personal life’ and cannot experience ‘spontaneous personal feeling’. Their alienated, meaningless existence is compared with the authentic social life of Charles Sturt’s English village. It’s not clear how much of this is directed towards student readers: one wonders what they would have made of the discovery that they were merely engaged in ‘substitute living’.

However, the whole final section of the book is clearly intended for classroom use: it consists of 93 short quotations or assertions that are designed to be used as material for discussion. Here’s a flavour, all relating to advertising:

‘Modern publicity debases the currency of spiritual and emotional life generally’. Discuss and illustrate.

It is not merely phrases, speeches and slogans that are demanded of advertising men; rather, it is truth, philosophy and vision. ‘Creative’, ‘inspiration’, ‘personality’, etc. Why do you feel embarrassed when you find yourself using these words in the advertising way?

‘Clean-cut executive type’, ‘good mixer’, ‘representative man’, ‘short-haired executive’, ‘regular guy’ (Americanism). Why do we wince at the mentality that uses this idiom?

Elsewhere, students are invited to speculate about the effects of mass culture, and its influence on those who enjoy it. They are asked to imagine the ‘kind of people’ who might enjoy particular types of (trashy) writing, as opposed to those who prefer Shakespeare or John Donne; the ‘kind of people’ who visit popular attractions, and their ‘general taste and mentality’; and the ‘life of a person who responds to the advertisements he or she reads’. These are clearly other people – as distinct from those of us who are wincing with embarrassment at their poor taste. Cultural analysis becomes a matter of differentiating between ‘us and them’, the minority and the mass.

The quotations that are chosen here are of two main kinds: they are either to be endorsed or refuted. The questions, for the most part, are extremely leading or rhetorical ones. Readers (students) are invited to ‘discuss’ and ‘comment’, or even simply to ‘illustrate’, but the terms of the debate – and the expected outcomes – are already set. Apparently, one of Leavis’s most characteristic moves as a teacher was to lay out his judgment of a text and then ask his students, ‘this is so, is it not?’ The correct answer was clearly not ‘actually, no, it isn’t’. The role of the student here is to guess what’s in the teacher’s mind, and to affirm it. This makes for a highly dogmatic form of pedagogy. At best, it’s a matter of take it or leave it: either you get it, in which case you are fit to join the enlightened minority, or you don’t.

 

Going forwards… or backwards?

By the early 1960s, Leavisism had undoubtedly begun to fade. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, its critique of mass culture is alive (although a little strained) in Thomson’s collection Discrimination and Popular Culture (1964). However, Hall and Whannel’s The Popular Arts, published in the same year, is starting to undermine some of its basic assumptions, and to point in new directions. As Mulhern suggests, the apparent ‘radicalism’ of this approach appealed to early exponents of Cultural Studies like Hoggart and Williams, even if they eventually moved beyond it. However, Leavisism also sanctioned the overtly reactionary arguments of educational writers like G.H. Bantock, along with some of the authors of the Black Papers in the 1970s, as well as the increasingly peculiar therapeutic theories of David Holbrook. To say the least, its intellectual legacy is an ambivalent one.

For most English teachers, this might all be considered ancient history. Most histories of the subject (such as Simon Gibbons’ useful study) suggest that Leavisism was gradually replaced by the ‘personal growth’ approach that came to prominence in the later 1960s, and as the focus of attention shifted somewhat from language to literature. Leavisism took its place among the various ‘versions’ of English that were identified, for example by Brian Cox, whose 1989 report laid the groundwork for the National Curriculum. Bethan Marshall’s research, conducted in the mid-1990s, found that what she calls the ‘Old Grammarians’ were still around, but were far from being the dominant group.

Even so, Michael Gove’s resuscitation of Matthew Arnold, along with the recent emphasis on ‘cultural capital’, might give pause for thought here. However unfashionable it may now seem, Leavisism embodies what Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’ – indeed, a sense of humanizing mission – that continues to inform English teaching today; although the transformation of English into ‘literacy’, and the emphasis on mechanistic forms of language study, does mean that a certain amount of this has disappeared.

Arguably, the new versions of English that emerged in the 1960s had much in common with those that preceded them. Retrospectively, there is a clear continuity between ‘personal growth’ and the moral and psychological emphases of Leavisism (Holbrook is an interesting transitional figure here); and even as the focus shifted to language, ‘literature’ largely remained unquestioned. It was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that a minority of English teachers made a more radical break with this approach, questioning (among other things) its basic assumptions about culture, and the very category of ‘literature’ itself. Media education was part of this, but its fundamental challenge to English was arguably contained and even undermined as it span off into a separate subject, Media Studies.

Nevertheless, significant vestiges of the Scrutiny project remain, not so much in the overt attitudes or ideologies of English teachers, but in the very ways in which the subject itself is constituted – in what it includes and excludes, in its methods of dealing with texts, in its characteristic classroom practices, and in how its fundamental aims and purposes are defined. We can probably expect to see these things reasserted in the educational ‘culture wars’ of the coming years.

 

References

Simon Gibbons (2017) English and its Teachers London: Routledge

Christopher Hilliard (2012) English as a Vocation: The Scrutiny Movement Oxford: Oxford University Press

F.R. Leavis (1930) Mass Civilization and Minority Culture Cambridge: The Minority Press

F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson (1933) Culture and Environment London: Chatto and Windus

Q.D. Leavis (1932) Fiction and the Reading Public London: Chatto and Windus

Bethan Marshall (2000) English Teachers: The Unofficial Guide  London: RoutledgeFalmer

Francis Mulhern (1979) The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ London: New Left Books

 

 

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