Hansen, V. “Vicesimus Knox: The teaching of English literature for the liberalisation of the mind”. History of Education Society Bulletin, Spring 1987, S. 34-37.
Volker Hansen, Bergische Universität, Wuppertal, Federal Republic of Germany
It is a striking phenomenon that the historiography of conceptions concerning the teaching of English literature has until now been fairly neglected in Great Britain. Although it is true that some relevant detailed studies have been published so far, this scarcely meets the importance of a subject so well established in the contemporary curriculum. What is still missing is an overall account of the historical development of its underlying assumptions with their genesis in the Renaissance and their slow but constant expansion up to the present.1 One reason for this may be that materials are widely scattered in histories of education, prefaces to school anthologies, private letters of English professors and their students, university calendars, theses, inaugural lectures, reports of school commissions, handbooks of rhetoric and composition etc.
This research has not to be done, of course, purely for antiquarian motives but to get onto safer ground if a proper evaluation of current theories is to be achieved, or as B. Doyle puts it: ‚the question of the significance of a discipline’s own past for a reflexive understanding of its present operations‘2 has to be posed. This has not been the case in the teaching of English literature. H.-G. Gadamer demands the permanent interpretation of tradition3 which may also in this subject area lead to a deeper understanding of its latent or explicit didactic conceptions and we may, in addition, see if ‚our attitude and methods are often enough only reaction from those of earlier teachers‘.4 For this extensive task the ground should be well prepared by preliminary studies such as A. Kearney’s article on J.W.Hales published in this journal,5 which may lead, at the very best, to a comprehensive account of the development of the central theories.
The following article deals with Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821), one of the subject’s pioneers, and goes back to a time when English literature was still struggling for its legitimation in public schools and grammar schools. The beginnings of the didactic conception of English literature teaching in this representative of the orthodox-clerical movement of Evangelicalism, who also was one of the most resolute defenders of the traditional school system with classical studies as its core, can be found in his educational writings. By the end of the eighteenth century the important status of the Classics within the curricula led to increasingly critical comments which, especially under the influence of utilitarian ideas, attacked the theory and practice of traditional institutions, so inviting protest from their classical defenders:
The climate of challenge and innovation was strong enough to force the adherents of the traditional system on to the defensive, and draw from them some explicit statements about the utility of a classical education.6
Furthermore Rousseau’s novel Emile ou de I’éducation, first published in 1762, had produced fierce debates. In particular his basic assumption that man was good by nature brought into the arena a number of pedagogues – Knox being one of them – who tried to justify traditional education at secondary and tertiary level.
Knox was headmaster of Tonbridge School for many years. In his influential literary and pedagogical works the prevalent neoclassical educational ideals become clearly evident. Unlike Rousseau he was convinced of the innate malevolence of children. But they could be helped by suitable measures embedded in a truly Christian education. This was in accordance with a pedagogical optimism which acknowledged the educability of man and whose objective was the improvement of his nature and the advancement of his intellectual talents. This was only possible by means of a general education evolved and proven over generations, as had been established in traditional classical and biblical texts. For this purpose the teaching of the classical languages and particularly their literatures was indispensable; that is why he described classical studies as a
discipline which lays the foundation of improvement in ancient learning … Classical discipline is not only desirable, as it qualifies the mind for this profession or for that occupation; but as it opens a source of great pleasure unknown to the vulgar. Even if it were not the best preparation for every employment above the low and mechanical, which it confessedly is, yet it is in itself most valuable, as it tends to adorn and improve human nature, and to give the ideas a noble elevation.7
The study of the languages and literatures of the Greeks and Romans was also of great importance to the intellectual and moral development of the individual. It served his preparation for higher professions and the perfection of his character: the education of a gentleman. It was the conditio sine qua non for the upper classes of a society ‚which was certain of its common psychological, moral and intellectual fundamentals‘8 to take part in the cultural humanistic pantheon of the time.
Although Knox stood firmly on the ground of classical educational objectives he kept an open mind about the growing interest of a wide public in English literature. H. Schoeffler has emphasized the importance of ‚a clergy ridding itself of pure ecclesiasticism‘9 in the eighteenth century:
Enormous influence on the literary taste of adolescents was exerted especially by the clergy because it held almost the complete higher education in its hands. As a private tutor at a manor, as a head of a parish, in grammar schools, at universities – everywhere the clergyman had young people under his care. That was to become of great literary historical importance as soon as clergymen themselves began to look after the vernacular literature, during the Enlightenment.10
So in 1783 Vicesimus Knox published anonymously one of the first English school anthologies entitled Elegant Extracts, of Useful and Entertaining Passages in Prose, selected for the improvement of Scholars at Classical and other Schools in the Art of Speaking, in Reading, Thinking, Composing, and the Conduct of Life11 and six years later Elegant Extracts, or Useful and Entertaining Pieces of Poetry, selected for the Improvement of Youth.12 Here at a very early date an extensive selection of English literature for pupils, which could be added to the canon of classical texts, was made available. The function of the anthologies becomes obvious from their titles: just as classical literature, so English literature also has to serve both the linguistic and the moral development of the scholar. At the same time the entertainment value of literature according to Horace’s postulate of aut prodesse aut delectare is emphasized. This is illustrated in the preface. In order to legitimize his school anthologies Knox says:
There is no good reason to be given why the mercantile classes, at least of the higher order, should not amuse their leisure with any pleasures of polite literature. Nothing perhaps contributes more to liberalize their minds, and prevent that narrowness which is too often the consequence of a life attached, from the earliest age, to the pursuits of lucre.13
The class-orientated task which is assigned to English literature becomes obvious, a view which was increasingly to be adopted during the nineteenth century: the narrowness of bourgeois life is to be overcome, remote from routine striving for things transient, by the study of vernacular literature. Thus the mind restricted by the necessities of professional instruction and activities will be liberated for higher occupations, for a liberalisation of the mind which had been, as we have seen, almost entirely the task of classical education. Here Knox, like many of his successors, allots a substitutional function to English literature: it can contribute to a certain extent to a liberal education of the well-to-do section of the middle class. So he takes into account the more and more influential utilitarian tendencies of his time by making available materials which comply with the ever increasing thirst for culture of this class and its interest in an education more related to practical than to classical studies.
But Knox’s position also shows that the supporters of Evangelicalism at that time by no means represent a monolithically rigid block which rejected all new cultural currents; in fact very often they assimilated rising tendencies to a certain extent innovatively. This has only recently been pointed out by T. Tholfsen:
Evangelicalism has never been totally free of the influence of a culture whose religious and intellectual tendencies it was in reaction against. While the manifest intention of the revival had been to reaffirm the fundamentals of Protestantism in the face of latitudinarian slackness and rational ism, it nevertheless embodied aspects of the thought world of the eighteenth century.14
Thus Knox stresses the usefulness of the study of English literature for pupils as it not only contributes to the formation of taste but also represents a path to science.15 Moreover, poetry offers the possibility of exerting a purposive influence on children: ‚Poetry may be the best instrument to operate on them‘,16 if one only develops further the Godgiven love for it: ‚The Author of nature has kindly implanted in a man a love of Poetry‘.17 D.J. Palmer has emphasized the importance of this peculiar convergence of two such antagonistic movements as Utilitarianism and Evangelicalism – so characteristic of Knox’s conception – for the genesis of the teaching of English literature:
Ultimately opposed to each other, as thorough-going secularism and inspired religious idealism must be, they nevertheless often converged and coincided in their immediate aims … How much more ironic is it, then, that Utilitarianism and Evangelicalism, alike in their antipathy to imaginative literature, should yet bring about those educational reforms in which English studies gained a recognized and growing importance. As the empiricists stood in the line of direct descent from Bacon and Locke, so the humanitarian and liberal ideals of the Evangelicals were inherited from the democratic enthusiasms of Puritan, and later Wesleyan, champions of popular education. The study of English language and literature reflects this dual continuity, though changes in emphasis and approach become gradually apparent.18
The question of how to impart this literature is not so much of a problem for Knox and here we find again his dependence on classical education whose methods he only wants to transfer: ‚It is evident that it[the collection], may be used in schools, either in recitation, transcription, the exercise of the memory, or in imitation‘.19 Here the rhetorical ritual, many centuries old, is recommended although he had pointed in his preface to the ability of literature to stimulate the imagination. Classical education with its rigid methods still acted too overwhelmingly on one of the first conceptions of the teaching of English literature: the notorious modus operandi of the grammar schools should be transferred to English texts ‚by explaining every thing (sic) grammatically, historically, metrically, and critically‘.20 The selection of texts raised the same problems as the choice of classical works: there were passages which were not in conformity with the moral notions of an educationalist. Fielding’s works, for instance, might be a pleasure for the mature reader but were by no means suitable for young people beset by the ‚vicious properties of human nature‘.21 Accordingly his school anthologies contained only what he believed to be morally impeccable passages such as extracts from 36 (!) of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry from Milton to Johnson.
Another criterion for Knox was the popularity and acceptance of a literary work:
… it was the business of the Editor of a school-book like this, not to insert scarce and curious works, such as please virtuoso readers, chiefly from their rarity, but to collect such as were publicly known and universally celebrated. 22
Knox recommended his anthologies for English schools in contrast to grammar schools, where they might only be used as a kind of supplement for leisure. But it seems that they were not employed too widely at first, owing to the caution of headmasters. Nevertheless, Knox’s merit remains that he published a conception for the teaching of English literature and offered appropriate materials for pupils at a time when traditional curricula showed no interest in the subject.
1 There are only publications on the development of English and English studies respectively such as S. Potter, The Muse in Chains (London, 1937); D.J. Palmer, The Rise of English Studies (Oxford, 1965); M. Mathieson, The Preachers of Culture (London, 1975); D. Shayer, The Teaching of English in Schools: 1900-1970 (London/Boston, 1972); C. Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism Oxford,1983).
2 B. Doyle, The Hidden History of English Studies‘, Re-reading English ed. P. Widdowson (London/New York, 1982), p.17.
3 ‚bleibt es die eigentliche Vollendung der historischen Aufgabe, die Bedeutung des Erforschten neu zu bestimmen.‘ H.-G. Gadamer; Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen, 1975), pp.266-67.
4 M.M. Lewis, Outlines of the History of the Study of English in Theory and Practice (1550-1800), unpublished MA thesis, University of London (1922), p.400.
5 A. Kearney, ‚J.W. Hales and the Teaching of English Literature: 1860-1900‘, History of Education Society Bulletin, 26 (Autumn 1980).
6 P. Wilson, ‚Classical Poetry and the Eighteenth-Century Reader‘, Books and their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England ed. I. Rivers (Leicester, 1982), p.73.
7 V. Knox, Liberal Education, I (London, 1781), p.4.
8 ‚einer Gesellschaft, die sich ihrer gemeinsamen psychologischen, moralischen und geistigen Grundlagen gewiss ist.‘ E. Standop/E. Mertner, Englische Literaturgeschichte (Heidelberg, 1976), p.363.
9 H. Schoeffler, Protestantismus und Literatur (Göttingen, 1958), p.206.
11 (London, 1783).
12 (London, 1789).
13 Elegant Extracts, ed. V. Knox, 1824 edn., Preface.
14 T. Tholfsen, ‚Moral Education in the Victorian Sunday School‘, History of Education Quarterly 1, 1980, pp .84-85.
15 Through the pleasant paths of Poetry, they [young persons] have been gradually led to the heights of science‘ Elegant Extracts: Poetry, ed. V. Knox, 1789 edn., Preface.
18 Palmer, op.cit., p.15.
19 Knox, Poetry, 1789 edn., Preface.
21 V. Knox, Liberal Education (London, 1781), p.286.
22 Knox, Poetry, 1789 edn., Preface.