English in British Curriculum
The moment we think of education in Great Britain, only two names cross our mind, at once; The oldest University of the English-speaking world, Oxford and the University of Cambridge, the second oldest. Until the first quarter of the nineteenth century these Universities, the knowledge hub for the Britain youths and the dreamland for a legion of aspiring young Europeans, were mainly teaching Classics (Greek and Latin literature), Divinity (or we might call it Theology since it was the course to be taken for those who sought ordination) and mathematics. It might surprise many of us to notice the absence of science and the inclusion of religious study instead.
The educational institutions of that era were on the hands of the Church of England. Educational sector was its monopoly, not an exaggeration to mention. Science, of those times, was much cult like than academic like. Women were barred from attending college. Catholics, Jewish, Methodists, or Atheists were denied admissions. This when extrapolated also mean that the members of these categories could neither take up Civil Service. Sounds bizarre now, uh? Hey, but wait! Did you notice that English is not among the subjects taught, then?
Yes, even couple of centuries after Shakespeare, in the heartland of the English, English was not a part of academic curriculum. Since the Middle ages nothing much had changed in education in England. The attempts to revive this went futile. It is still more interesting to know that neither of the top universities of England, thus mentioned, offered the first ever course in English.
There was a strong urge for revival of the education system in England and many secretly dreamed of an institution offering education to everyone, without any discrimination on any grounds. One among them was philosopher, social reformer and thinker Jeremy Bentham. He founded the University College of London (UCL) in 1826. It became the first college in the history of Britain to offer English as an academic subject.
Jeremy appointed his friend John Bowring as the professor of English. Thus Bowring became the first English professor in the English history, though nothing much had changed after his coming. He was an interesting personality, a polyglot (a person versed in or capacious of speaking multiple languages), translator, and a politician in his later life. He went on to become the 4th Governor of Hong Kong. The UCL later also became the first British University to admit women in colleges in 1878.
Though English was offered as a subject in UCL the course design dealt much with the language itself, which sited literature only as an example for teaching the English language. The first of English Literature course- of the kind we are now familiar with- was offered to pupils by King’s College, London in 1831. (This college is London University now.) But even after English found its way to lecture halls in colleges why would English literature take time to follow? Searching for the answer to this would lead us to a wonderful understanding of not just the socio-political backdrop of 19th century England but also show us the scope of literature so perceived at that time. Won’t you wait till tomorrow for it pals?