By Richard Mason
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English, in fact, was to be a new classics: the key subject for the moral and intellectual culture of all those outside the public school/ancient university ambit (a falling off of classical studies in the grammar schools in the course of the nineteenth century was simultaneous with the creation of a large number of new public schools). Speaking to a Parliamentary Commission in 1868, the headmaster of Marlborough urged that 'unusual weight' be given to English language and literature in lower social status schools: 'to attempt to humanize and refine a boy's mind by trying to familiarize him with English poetry'.
This was agreed and in 1919 the first examination for the English Tripos took place (it was intended to be taken after a Part 1 in another subject, usually classics). It was quickly felt desirable that there should be a complete and distinct two-part course and this was achieved in 1926 (the number of students taking English was then nearly 250) by the creation of a fully independent Board of English and an English Tripos allowing a unique separation of literary from linguistic studies - a degree could be obtained at Cambridge in English with no requirements in Old English or philology (the separation was made the easier by post-war antiGerman feeling, philology being seen as 'Germanic').
What we have, therefore, is English gaining an educational place but in class and indeed gender terms (the need to provide for the education of middle-class women who, of course, had no access to the classical education). A major development was then the extension from the relatively superficial idea of literature as a schooling in taste into the more socially pressing one of its effectiveness as a liberalising force. In the context of the spread of literacy and the movement to democracy in the rapidly expanding and changing urban-industrial society, appeal was made to literature as a crucial cultural pedagogy, something that could offer the values and truths on which the maintenance of social unity was felt to depend - a unity, significantly enough in an age of Empire, that it could give too as a strength of national identity (literature seen as 'the autobiography of a nation').
Cambridge Minds by Richard Mason