English as a discipline: what does geneology suggest?

genealogyIn these past few blog posts, I’ve been trying to read and think my way towards greater clarity about the nature of secondary English. In particular, I’m asking: Is secondary English a discipline, with a distinct and recognized purpose, content, methods and forms? Or is it a hybrid subject and not a discipline at all?

This matters, I think. Students enter a secondary classroom in the expectation that what they learn in that class will be valuable, either because they will learn a collection of valuable skills (and a hybrid subject can teach them these), or because they will come to understand their worlds better (the promise of studying a discipline). Unless we, as English teachers, are clear about our work (do we teach a subject or a discipline), we’re likely to give out confusing messages to our students and have teaching programs that lack coherence and conviction.

Perhaps some would say that this question of the nature of English is not the business of the classroom teacher, but of policy and curriculum makers. But if, as some suggest, the new National English Curriculum is more a broad framework than a prescriptive syllabus, then how an individual teacher programs units of work will reflect a view – consciously or unconsciously held – about the function of English teaching. Greater clarity than we presently seem to have about the purpose of English would seem to be an important imperative.

So I’ve been reading.

[And here I want to make a quick diversion. As I drove into work this morning, I asked myself why I was reporting on my reading in my public blog. There are three reasons, I think. The first is that it helps me read if I record the questions I’m hoping the reading will address and the ideas that come to me as I read. Secondly, I always read better when I’m reading and discussing material with others, so I’m hoping to tempt others to join what would otherwise be just my cut-off and limited reflections. And finally, I want to demonstrate to my students how I go about reading, so that they understand something of its generative and evolving nature, something that they sometimes need to be reminded of.]

Yesterday I read an article by Phil Cormack (2008) where he traces some of the origins of English as a secondary subject. His study is of the genealogy of English in South Australia, though he suggests that what he has discovered there accurately tells us something about the origins of English as a secondary subject in Australia (and probably elsewhere).

His conclusion is that there is no single root version of English of which all subsequent versions are variants, thus denying me any chance of suggesting that we used to know what English was all about but have lost the plot. Instead, says Cormack, the subject (or different versions of the subject) have emerged out of the gradual expansion of education from Primary Schools (where different combinations of composition, grammar, reading, and spelling were taught) into new Secondary Schools who took up, in inconsistent and varying ways, these Primary-school components and began to call some or all of them ‘English’. English as a subject, in other words, grew not from any sense of it being a coherent discipline capable of offering secondary students a way of exploring and understanding the world, but out of contexualised and pragmatic preoccupations at the close of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, with preparing a skilled workforce, and ‘civilising’ a growing working class.

He concludes:

The purpose of this article is to tell a history of English from the margins, and at the level of the local, in order to trouble it as a story in the singular – in other words, to take a genealogical perspective on its emergence and subsequent forms. Genealogical approaches to history emphasise discontinuity and don’t seek to describe a ‘linear development’, which involves assuming that ideas/words keep their meaning over time, or that ideas developed at one time retain their logic in another (Cormack 1998; Foucault 1977, 139). Foucault counsels against the search for origins underpinned by the belief that understanding the moment of birth enables a special insight into the true nature of the thing being studied. He notes that genealogical study will find that ‘there is ‘‘something altogether different’’ behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in piecemeal fashion from alien forms’ (Foucault 1977, 142).

So, if I’m to successfully make the case for English as a discipline, Cormack is telling me that I can’t make it be referring to its origins. As I reported in previous posts, nor can I make it by analyzing its current forms, which reveal it to be more a hybrid subject ((Green and Cormack 2008; Dixon 2012), whose focus shifts over time (Misson 2012) and whose nature is determined by practitioners in their eclectic programming rather than being determined by any shared disciplinary understanding (Howie 2008).

Am I ready to give up the project to think about secondary English as a discipline? Not quite yet.


Cormack, P. (2008). “Tracking Local Curriculum Histories: The Plural Forms of Subject English ” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15(3): 275-291.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. and P. Cormack (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Howie, M. (2008). “Problematising Eclecticism and Rewriting English, .” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15:3, (3): 339-350.

Misson, R. (2012). “Understanding about water in liquid modernity: Critical imperatives for English teaching.” English in Australia 47(1).


One thought on “English as a discipline: what does geneology suggest?

  1. Pingback: English as a discipline: what does geneology suggest? | Birds fly, fish swim

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