Methods of Teaching English Literature

Alternative Title

[Harvard Monthly 4.4 (June, 1887), 160-161]


It is interesting to observe that at the same time with the improvements in the English Department at Harvard, radical changes in the methods of teaching English Literature at the English Universities are under discussion. These changes, as everybody knows, were suggested by Mr. Churton Collins in his Quarterly Review article attacking Mr. Edmund Gosse’s book, From Shakespeare to Pope. This book, with its almost countless errors in fact and in criticism, was held up to the public as a fair sample of the kind of instruction given at Cambridge, and presumably at Oxford also. But the errors of the book merely served as a peg on which to hang a more general attack upon the University system of instruction in literature.
     Mr. Collins’ theory is that ancient and modern literature can no more be separated than ancient and modern art, history or philosophy; that the Literature of England is indebted especially to Greece and Rome, and that therefore English Literature should be studied in direct connection with the Literatures of Greece and Rome.
     There can be no doubt that in theory Mr. Collins’ suggestions are excellent. Some of the most prominent men in England have though them applicable in practice, and have joined Mr. Collins in advocating the endowment of such a school as he has proposed. But more of those who have written and thought upon the subject, while they admit the force of Mr. Collins’ arguments, are by no means sure that his plan is practicable, or even desirable. Many and extremely serious objections have been raised against it. Perhaps the most powerful is that only one or two men in a generation could be found [161] willing or able to enter upon so enormous a task. Still more difficult would it be to find a man large enough in every way to occupy so important and extensive a chair. It is manifest that before beginning the study of literature as a connected subject in all ages, a man must be thoroughly versed in the distinct divisions of that into the scheme proposed. But, for those who feel that the time has come for some new system of instruction, it is gratifying to learn that the Oxford Hebdomadal Board has under consideration the establishment of a distinct school of literature. Whether or not it will be formed upon the lines laid out by Mr. Collins, of course it is impossible to say. For our own part, we are inclined to think that the proper method is pursued at Harvard. Facilities for the study of every important literature of the world are provided. No restrictions prevent a man from studying all or any of those literature. If he wishes to reach the goal set up by Mr. Collins, — the knowledge of literature in all ages, — he is perfectly free to study it in its separate ages, and no doubt would receive every possible encouragement from the college, if he were inclined and able, by connecting the results of his work in various departments, to attain the knowledge desired.