How T. S. Eliot’s time as a university lecturer shaped his writing

Ronald Schuchard looks at how Eliot’s time at the University of London shaped his work

May 15, 2017
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T. S. Eliot once worked at the University of London as an extension tutor. He believed in education for all, rather than education befitting a person’s social class – a belief that is very much in keeping with the ethos of the institution at which he taught. 

Eliot delivered regular classes to the working people of Southall in West London, as part of the University of London’s Joint Committee for the Promotion of the Higher Education of Working People. The extension courses were meant to be on a university level in the fullest sense, and tutors were vetted not only for academic qualification but for knowledge of and sympathy with working people. 

The committee’s aim was to enable working men and women “to gain for themselves and their fellows such knowledge as will throw light upon the dark places in industrial and social life. The poorest working man or woman need not be excluded from these classes by reason of the cost”. In nearly all classes there were female students, with some classes created especially for women, whose educational needs were considered equally with those of men. This was the enlightened educational culture that the joint committee, far ahead of its time, had created when Eliot accepted his three-year tutorial course on modern literature at the beginning of the 1916-17 academic year, the centenary of which we celebrate this year at the 1858 Charter Lecture. 

As seen in his letters, Eliot clearly found immense pleasure in teaching his classes. In one letter, he spoke of the Southall class in glowing terms: "One [member] of the class told me I was the best literature tutor they had ever had...I enjoy it immensely, and the Monday evening is one of the moments of the week that I look forward to. The class is very keen and very appreciative, and very anxious to learn and to think. These people are the most hopeful sign in England, to me." 

Indeed, Eliot found a direct affinity with his working-class students, writing that: “Some of them are remarkably clever, and I have to do my best to keep up with them in discussion. This class of person is really the most attractive in England, in many ways; it is not so petrified in snobbism and prejudice as the middle classes, and yet is very humble.” As he confided to his Harvard teacher, “You see I am by way of being a Labourite in England, though a conservative at home.” This image of Eliot is a welcome contrast to view many still hold of him as a snobbish, elite conservative.   

Preparing these lectures also gave Eliot the opportunity to teach works of English literature in which he had an interest, but had not previously had the time to read and study. In his third year of teaching, the students asked him to switch from Victorian to Elizabethan literature, which Eliot responded to with relish. "My Southall people want [me] to do Elizabethan literature next year," he excitedly informed his mother, "which would interest me more than what we have done before, and would be of some use to me too, as I want to write some essays on the dramatists, who have never been properly criticised."

These lectures on Elizabethan drama began an immensely fruitful creative interpretation of this era by Eliot, resulting in many essays on the Elizabethans, collected in The Sacred Wood, as well as references to the Elizabethans continuing throughout his poetic output until his death. 

Most of us are aware of the impact teaching has on the student, but it is equally important to remember the impact it has on the teacher. Learning is a two way process that enriches the lives of all who take part in it. In the case of Eliot, whose teaching experience formed such an important part of his intellectual development, we can see that teaching can have transformative effects for those who undertake it, in this instance helping to make Eliot one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. 

Ronald Schuchard is Goodrich C. White professor of English emeritus at Emory University. He delivered the University of London International Programmes' inaugural 1858 Charter Lecture, entitled "Eliot in the Wartime Classroom 1916-1919", on Tuesday 16 May in London.

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