English battlefield

January 21, 2000

It is difficult to see through the rhetorical flourishes and laid-back stance how serious Cunningham is about the future of university English.

English language and literature degrees were an uneasy partnership based on poor intellectual foundations. Breakaway efforts by the likes of Ivor Richards (to establish a psychological inquiry into reading) or William Empson (to reconsider linguistic signs in use) stirred little enthusiasm.

When the borders became permeable in the late 1960s many departments here and in the United States continued to ignore interlopers. Even today's talk about a "gold standard" betrays something unexamined or obsolete.

The agenda Cunngingham rightly proposes is long overdue; discussion of the criteria to help select (and integrate) the "list of objects of attention"; for a historical and critical review, synthesising the studies of the "act of reading"; for a new attack on the meaning of "meaning"; for an analysis of the presuppositions behind "hermeneutic readings" and so on. We agree on the list. The question is: which departments are working on such themes for the benefit of their students?

John Dixon Ilkley, Yorkshire

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