How should we be teaching English Literature ?

The obvious question, then, one that should perhaps come before that in the title, is surely : ‘Why teach English Literature in the university ?’ One reply to that question is : Because we professors have studied it. Now that does not get us very far along the road we want to follow. Yet, as a matter of fact, if until now almost every Korean university has had a Department of English Language and Literature, in which many if not most courses were consecrated to British and American literature, that was because they were following the model previously found in a large majority at least of the American colleges and universities where, in a Humanities College, a department of English offered the Graduate School program taken by the Koreans who went to study there in the 1970s.

This essay does not intend to pursue the historical survey very far ; it is a familiar story and looking into the past never helped much in searching for radically new solutions to a problem. At the outset however, we do need to see that when the curriculum of the English department program in Korean universities took shape, it was strongly imitative of that found in the US. Yet in the US, English is the native language, in Korea it is extremely foreign. One might, in retrospect, think that it would have been better to have imitated the structures of American foreign language departments in setting up the Korean universities’ English departments. This was not done, and perhaps as a result the more practical aspects of the language-learning side were largely ignored, if not positively despised.

When Sogang University was first established, the thoughtful foreign priests arriving from the US, Europe, and Japan, wished to limit themselves to setting up a very small Humanities College offering high-quality education in a small range of subjects to a small number of highly talented students. Quality was to be the main concern, and one of their first innovations was to establish a separate ‘General English’ program with highly qualified faculty. However, they were soon informed that ‘good’ students would only apply for a properly certified, fully-equipped university which meant they were obliged to establish colleges of science and engineering and a graduate school as well. The conformism inherent at so many levels of Korean culture effectively prevented any attempt at offering some alternative models of higher education.

Now it is not possible to give a proper answer to the question how English Literature should be taught in Korean universities if we do not have any clear idea about what Korean universities are for, how they should operate, and what kind of education they should be giving at the start of the 21st century. We need to come to some kind of agreement on these questions first, since that will give us information on what kind of education we should be giving to what kind of students for what kind of society. Unfortunately, those most inclined to answer those questions seem most hostile to the traditional concept of the University as a place of Humane Studies.

It must be said that the program so far followed by many Korean English departments is really only useful to undergraduates wishing to study literature at Graduate School. Graduate School studies in English Literature in turn are in their present form only meaningful to people who hope to become the new teachers of English literature to the next generation of undergraduates, always assuming that the curriculum remains unchanged. Do all the Korean undergraduate students majoring in English really have to learn about Shakespeare or Steinbeck or Wordsworth? This is not a question of the canon, it is a question about the way literature has for so long dominated the curriculum. Now we all know that the high-school students we interview for admission all speak of their desire to gain better language-skills, while few or none express a deep interest in studying literature.

The explanation for this divergence between student-expectations and the actual curriculum is probably, as suggested previously, simply because the English department faculty members have decided they will teach those things which they learned in the way they learned them and as they want to teach them. Until very recently, at least, they did not have to worry about what the students actually wanted to study, or needed to study, or what society wanted them to know. Students are notoriously unable to say what they want, in any case. Certainly, Korean society has failed to give any very helpful indications.

One essential problem is by now quite clear : the Department of English Language and Literature is part of what is today the least significant section of the university, financially speaking. Departments of Science and Engineering are closely linked to the world of industry, they teach subjects and receive funding to do research on questions that relate directly to the outside world where a new process or a better-trained graduate leads immediately to higher profits. Another section casting a potential shadow over the Humanities is that of Business and Management, equally pragmatic and modern, offering courses designed to prepare students to engage in the modern world and to make money for their employing company if not for themselves. Such departments also have links to powerful businesses, they receive large grants of funding for research, their programs are ‘useful’.

Now we come to two essential points. Literature is not ‘useful’ in science or business, and it was not written to be studied in universities. It is studied in universities because centuries ago the works of Virgil and Homer ceased to be ‘literature’ and became ‘classics’ which could be studied as models in both style and content. By extension, the classics, ancient or modern, were seen to be helpful in forming the true gentleman, which was Newman’s vision of the function of the university. It is not certain that the modern Korean university is much interested in forming educated gentlemen.

Modern British and American universities are facing a similar crisis in the Humanities ; they sometimes justify the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, philology by claiming that society is less in need of technical expertise, since techniques are constantly changing, than of people who have learned to think deeply and clearly about a variety of fundamental questions. Such people will be creative and adaptable throughout their working life, and will be prepared to pursue the ongoing formation that is an inevitable consequence of the rapid pace of change in the modern world. There is much to be said for this, but it has certainly not often been said in Korea.

Another challenge facing universities all over the world is the nature of the link between teaching and research. In the eyes of governments and funding agencies, the research being done in departments of science, technology, and business, is objective stuff that can be planned and evaluated relatively easily. The research being done by professors and graduates in English literature may (to them at least) seem very interesting and worthwhile, but it can never claim any direct social utility and can never lead to financial profits.

We need to stress the value of teaching young people to think, because that (and certainly not business letter writing) is probably the only real justification for any Humanities program. By the courses we teach, we hope that our students may learn to ask good questions, search for acceptable reasonable answers, confront reality and reflect about ideas in creative and challenging ways. In this vision, the study of literature cannot be separated from that of philosophy, and history, while English and American literature cannot be separated from Korean, French, Chinese or German literature (to say nothing of

~ by jeanehistoria on December 29, 2009.

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