Raymond Williams, "The Future of English Literature"
(from What I Came to Say, 1989)
The fact is that what is waiting at the end of the road I was describing earlier -- where having read books of all kinds, you see a path ahead in which there will be more of that kind of activity, more people and more experienced people to discuss it with in a continual expansion and interchange, in all the many stimuli and pleasures of different kinds of writing -- what is waiting is of course the syllabus, and this requires rather precise definition. I don't think you could simply say, we've all developed these strong kinds of personal interest in reading and come to a university where there's a library and we can all pursue our individual courses. I mean you could argue that position, but it's difficult really to make the case for a university if that's what you do mean....And yet immediately you look at a syllabus you see that the limits are in fact inscribed in it, and this is the most difficult professional point. For a syllabus is always offered as if it were a fairly common-sense, self-evident description of what is agreed common ground in the study of the subect -- English Literature. It is not offered as a matter for argument but rather as the way the subject as it were constructs itself.
I am saying that there's a real problem about that 600 years of English literature when it is regarded as the creation and expression of the whole people. After all, that is what the claim to Englishness, essential Englishness, is: that in learning this you learnt the real fibre of your people, they almost said 'race'. And yet, we must then insist, not until the last 100 years or so could the great majority of the people of these islands have been in any significant sense contributors to that literature, or readers of it, responding in the way in which readers do, helping both to constitute it and in some sense to shape it, giving certain shapes, affecting certain tones which involve the historical transacation of writers and readers.
One doesn't raise the only as a 'political' issue, as people say, fighting an old cause, fighting the cause of a people consciously kept illiterate -- though of course that's what it was. The struggle for literacy was a real a social struggle as any struggle for subsistence or food or shelter. It was at several points viciously beaten back, and then in a sense only admitted on terms which are again becoming highly fashionable and contemporary; because people would need to read instructions and even to write down certain things in the way of record to be able to work....Is not that deep substratum of the language-situation, not in a technical sense of language but in a social sense, a major issue in itself?"
Now it's in all these ways that the existing orthodox syllabus reveals itself as a stabilisation before the very forces that are now visibly disturbing it, disturbing the situation, in some ways ending the situation. ... If [the case for syllabus reform] is made simply in the form that these are undesirable restrictions of my total individual freedom of choice, then it will not get through because it concedes too much. It concedes the notion that we have some common responsibility to knowledge and its maintenance; it concedes the sens of a certain necessary organisation as a basis for much more individual choice and options which lead out from that. The case is stronger when it doesn't concede these points, which are almost the only serious points left to the defenders of the status quo; and they defend it the more easily if the challenge is not an intellectual one, with the examples that make sense from our own reading, problems and discussions.
These excerpts are part of the History of English Studies Page (Rita Raley).