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  • Explaining the Actions of Men and Gods:Elements of English Pedagogy
  • John Hardcastle (bio)

Pedagogics is never and was never politically indifferent, since, willingly or unwillingly, through its own work on the psyche, it has always adopted a particular social pattern, political line in accordance with the dominant social class that has guided its interests.

—Lev Vygotsky

The Role of Language and Literature in Development

We need a long-term view of learning as well as a broad, developmental approach to the teaching of language, literature, composition, and culture. The kind of approach I have in mind will be sensitive to the social relationships among students and communities, within the wider currents of contemporary cultural change. It is my contention that an adequate picture of the role of language and literature in development will carry with it a strong sense of agency as well as a picture of the intrinsically creative business of binding words to experience. Representing our experiences symbolically—to ourselves as well as to one another—is a fundamentally self-constitutive activity as well as an irreducibly social one (Bruner 1996). It is both an ordinary and a miraculous business—a humanizing process that we all have to learn to engage in to maintain our sense of who we are and what we value. And teachers will need to understand such processes if they are to plan for and foster development in learners across the various phases of education. [End Page 453]

I first met these ideas in the writings of James Britton (1970, 1975, 1987). Britton's work on language, learning, and development drew on linguistics, but its real foundations were in philosophy and psychology. It was reading in Britton that first suggested the possibility of combining perspectives on symbolization from the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer with those of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky on the mediating role of signs in development (Hardcastle 1996). Perspectives from Valentin Volosinov and Mikhail Bakhtin were added later. In what is to follow, I shall argue that such a combination could frame a theory of pedagogy for studies in literature, language, composition, and culture.

Interest in Vygotsky, Volosinov, and Bakhtin has grown hugely in recent years. However, Cassirer's picture of the mediating role of symbols in creating the conditions of possibility for experience might have faded had it not been for a strong renewal of interest in the ethical dimensions of his work and its continuing importance for cultural studies (Krois 1987; Habermas 2001; Hamlin 2003). Further to this, recent scholarship suggests that not only were the Soviet thinkers the inheritors of a seminal body of ideas coming down from the European Enlightenment (ideas with which Cassirer was centrally concerned), but also, it emerges, they were in close touch with intellectual developments, especially in psychology, surrounding Cassirer in Weimar Germany (Poole 1998; Brandist, Shepherd, and Tihanov 2004). I intend to revisit this history of these ideas with a view to recovering foundational perspectives for a theoretically coherent pedagogy.

The Grammarian's School in Late Antiquity

For the seven- and eight-year-old pupils entering grammarian's school in late antiquity, education was purely literary. Children from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds learned the forms of correct language (phonology, morphology, and parts of speech), read a small number of classical texts, and turned their knowledge of literary models into composition and speech. Pedagogy followed an established pattern. Line-by-line explications of texts combined the study of preselected linguistic features with historical and ethical instruction. As Robert Kaster puts it in his fascinating study Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity (1988: 12), "The actions of men and gods were explained and judged in terms of accepted mores and were used to confirm them." The basic pattern remained unaltered through the Renaissance into the nineteenth century. Two implicit assumptions stood behind the grammarian's syllabus: one concerned the status and authority of texts, the other pupil development. First, classical [End Page 454] texts were taken as repositories of timeless standards and values. They were "treasure houses" of words that grammarians, as guardians (custos) of language, interpreted and passed on. Second, it was assumed that an education in...


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