English Literary Education in a Diasporic Age

What? How? and Why?
English Language / Literature / Cultures in the University Curriculum

A paper presented at the summer 2005 Conference of the English Lanaguage and Literature Association of Korea (ELLAK) on June 29 2005 at Onyang.

Asked to express myself on a topic like today’s, that was decided at a higher level and only slowly trickled down to me, I cannot help feeling nervous. What, I wonder, can anyone expect to learn from a Cornish-born medievalist nearing retirement, who as a Korean is only twelve years old? Like you, perhaps, I examined the overall topic with some curiosity. The term “English literary education” struck me as rather old-fashioned. It made me think of earlier centuries when the sons of the English gentry, like those of the Korean Yangban, strove in unheated classrooms at unearthly hours of the morning to repeat passages from the Classics (Latin or Chinese) they had memorized by the light of a candle the previous night. The successful outcome of that “literary education” was gentlemen who were able to compose poems that were a recognizable pastiche of those they had studied in childhood. They did not learn anything that had a more directly utilitarian purpose. Reading the Classics was seen as a moral education in itself, it did not need any further justification. It was simply good for one, like rhubarb. I doubt if our graduates today compose sonnets in their idle hours; perhaps it is a sign that we have failed them? Yet the way we assume that we have to teach all the young Koreans in our English departments about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights, Woolf and Joyce, Frost and Eliot strikes me as rather similar. “Learn this,” we tell them, “it’s good for you.” Can we really justify that claim?

    To postpone the awkward questions, I will start by recalling some past history. It was only late in the 19th century that the ancient Universities of Britain and elsewhere began to change, as the Modern Age dawned, and tried to become a little more “useful” to society. Under pressure to be “modern and scientific” the teachers of the ancient Greek and Latin Classics created a science, Philology, which they then shared with their colleagues introduced to teach only slightly less ancient literary texts written in the Modern Languages – English, Italian, French, German etc. Philology ensured that the texts studied would not be read for any kind of aesthetic pleasure or moral enlightenment. When I studied in Oxford, 40 years ago, almost nothing written after 1900 was included in the curriculum of the English department. Reading texts by living writers, or barely dead ones, was not considered scholarship, it was relaxation, if not dissipation.

    The rest is a familiar story, with the two main streams of Literary History and Literary Criticism emerging and combining to give birth to the discipline we still find widely imitated in Korean Universities—the “academic study of English Literature.” Once Cleanth Brook’s Well Wrought Urn had suggested by its title that poetry is closely associated with death, the formally exquisite texts by dead, white, male writers, marked by multiple levels of irony and ambiguity, that New Criticism proposed to spend a lifetime analyzing, began to provoke resistance. Where the older notions of the study of literature had encouraged, and indeed assumed, an educational process of initiation, leading to appreciation, appropriation, even admiration or veneration on the part of the young generation, a shift began, based on the good old, negative, revolutionary notions of dissent, discontent and dissection.

   This was, of course, just one aspect of the Age of Doubt that arose first on a combination of Marx and Freud, erupted into the social and ideological turmoil of 1968, then went on to become the full flood of recently invented Literary Theory. The University worldwide has certainly benefited from this to gain a new awareness that the task of the scholar, and the mark of the educated person, has more to do with dissenting resistance to the conventionally admired than with advocating it. To a considerable extent, the main site where this has been seen is in the field of the Canon; the relatively new awareness of texts written by people other than the rich white men of earlier times has given the marginal, the female and the members of ethnic minorities a new claim to significance, and literary value.
So much for my response to “English literary education.” I was also perplexed by the term “in a Diasporic Age” in our topic. I had never met it before. What Diasporas do we have in Korea, I wondered? I finally realized that the “Diasporic Age” in question was not located here but in North America, and perhaps also to a lesser degree in Europe. The discovery of “the Diasporic” is a North American academic phenomenon, arising first in South Asian Area Studies in the earlier 1990s. Virtually every major world culture has a Diaspora in the United States. The word applies to the cultural products resulting from the American diaspora of Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Jewish, Vietnamese and every other ethnic group one can think of.

   That means that the main axis in today’s given topic is linked strongly to what has happened and is happening in the West, in the University in the West, and it is symptomatic that it is therefore now being exported here. It has been more than ten years since I once tried to point out, at a meeting of this Association, that the curricula of the departments of English Language and Literature in Korea seem to have been modeled on the programs of universities in the United States, with almost no serious recognition of the fact that English is the native language of most students there, but a very foreign language here. Since then, instead of more courses designed to teach our students English, there has been a growing emphasis in our Korean university English departments on various kinds of more or less obscure “literary theory” imported from the same American paradise, and also a growing tendency to turn away from the strictly literary in favor of a hazily defined area called “culture,” again in harmony with a similar shift in the West.

   I am not sure, however, if we should not rather have been trying to free ourselves from the hypnotic prestige attached to “what they are doing in American departments of English,” in order to move toward creating a more specifically Korean program, one better adapted to realities here. Are we really convinced of the validity or possibility or necessity of automatically adopting in Korea the curricula and approaches found in the universities of the West? Is it desirable to go on importing them as Korea imported Literary History and New Criticism twenty or thirty years ago? If dissent, discontent and dissection are capable of being naturalized into recognizably Korean attitudes, how do transgression, nonconformism and iconoclasm fit in with the ways Koreans construct their own cultural identity?

   I would certainly like to repeat what I said ten years ago. English is a very foreign language for Koreans. And by “language” I really mean “mind-set.” The differences between English and the Korean language seem to be such that it is far more difficult for young people here to acquire natural, fluent English without going abroad than it is in China, say, or even Cambodia. It is not something that our students can simply pick up by studying Shakespeare or poring over the Norton Anthologies. Yet there is at present an increasing pressure on our English departments, from university administrations and from businesses, to produce graduates who are able to speak and write really good English. This pressure is likely to turn into a real impatience in the coming years, and I think that it must be taken seriously if we want our Major to survive at all. The values of society are increasingly oriented toward cost-efficiency; we cannot keep saying that we teach our students to think well, if after graduating they write letters that begin with something like “You letter give me many pleasure.” And they far too often do just that.

    In this reputedly “Diasporic” Age, we need to ask ourselves some not too scattered questions: What are we supposed to be doing as professors of English literature in Korea? What should we be teaching? How? and Why? First, then, what is the central subject of our teaching and research? The answer used to be simple: some aspect of English literature. But since then undergraduate English Major curricula have expanded until today they are usually full of a whole series of different topics: practical English, theoretical linguistics, cognitive science, “British and American” literature (including works from Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, the Caribbean, Kenya, and elsewhere), creative writing, translation, and everything that can be termed the “culture” of the entire English-speaking world. “Culture” in this context involves everything expressed in every kind of media, especially cinema and pop music, but it also includes history, art, philosophy, sociology, economics, religion, folklore, mythology, sports and food. It is all very interesting. Yet whereas in times past students took 48 or more credits in a Major, today they mostly only take 36 credits and sometimes less. There is therefore no time for them to learn anything about anything.
Now, the fact of the matter is that what our students want, more than anything else, is simply to learn English. What they are being offered, in Korea’s most “prestigious” universities at least, is a curriculum still largely dominated by the study of old-fashioned literature and theoretical linguistics, together with a certain number of courses about various aspects of modern “culture.” Very few courses focus on really contemporary literature, that written in the past ten years, although that will always be the most interesting of all. And there are few Major courses in “practical English,” partly because of wishful thinking that the students have acquired that already, partly because it is not deemed sufficiently “academic” or “serious” in terms of content. And above all, I fear, because no professors want to teach practical English courses.

   Suppose for a moment that we were going to establish an entirely new “English Major” somewhere at undergraduate level, unconstrained by the presence of an existing set of faculty members with their predetermined special areas; what would it look like? Given the overall climate of opinion in Korea today, a priority would have to be given to practical English; the program should produce graduates capable of speaking and writing clear, grammatically correct, colloquial English. The priority given to practical language learning would mean that several faculty members would have their main qualification in teaching English in a non-English-speaking context. Some if not all should be native English-speakers, not only to ensure that correct models of grammar and pronunciation are available, but because intense, free-wheeling, confrontational discussions and debates, in which people must formulate their own opinions about important issues in a flash, then defend them, are not yet natural to most Korean teachers of English. Without the practice of such debate, I believe, students will never be able to interact well with westerners. As one senior Korean professor once asked me at an international conference: “Why don’t we Koreans know the art of lively conversation?”

    The second main focus ought to be to produce graduates familiar with the ways of living and attitudes to life (ie. “culture”) current in the English speaking world today. This would involve courses offering exposure to news media and entertainment (cinema, drama, music) as well as contemporary fiction and poetry, from a variety of countries. Here, beyond mere experience and factual knowledge, there would be a need for students to acquire a specific methodology of critical response. One possible methodology, perhaps the easiest one, would be comparative; Indian movies can fruitfully be compared with Korean movies; the topics covered in Australian newspapers or the BBC, and their style of coverage, can be contrasted with that found in the Korean daily press and media. Fiction written in English in Africa or the Philippines, as well as the US or the UK, can be contrasted with that now being published in Korea. Such courses would, of course, be conducted entirely in English.

    Beyond this, there would be a need for students to acquire the basis for a more objective, critical response to those cultures that express themselves in English. The tools for this might best be provided at the outset at least by Comparative Literature, Women’s Studies and Post-colonial discourse, for it could involve comparative examination of the cultural expressions of gender or ethnic identity and history in a variety of forms, mainly literary, from various countries.

    Realistically, there would be a need for a special focus on life in the USA today. The US have been the dominant foreign influence in southern Korea since 1945; Britain, India and Australia are all equally secondary, in comparison. It would not be acceptable that students could graduate without some study of the social history of the US, in order to understand the development of its current fundamental features, its mixed cultural heritage and its particular structures and institutions, as well as an outline of the world history in which they developed. Slavery, European religious intolerance and economic failures, Nazism, the Cold War and American imperialism are all essential background to today’s specifically American forms of discourse and practice regarding cultural identities, democracy, freedom, justice and religion. They all matter a lot.

    Familiarity with American realities would be enriched by reading works of contemporary American fiction. It is here that the discovery of the “diasporic” dimensions of current American society and culture would need to be included, especially, of course, regarding “Korean-American” writing and other cultural forms of expression. It might be desirable to include a special study of the sociology and culture of the Korean diaspora in the US, although that might not be easy without direct experience. It would be most important to develop through such readings an awareness of how different American social realities are from Korean, and why.

    So at the heart of our imaginary new curriculum there would be two focuses that are not so far removed from those we have now: (1) the English language (2) the culture of various English-speaking regions, mainly the United States, including mainly contemporary literature. Until very recently, this second focus has been mainly represented in our curricula by older literary works, almost exclusively from Britain and the US, but I reckon that is no longer acceptable. Above all, we need to become more aware of the distortions that have been caused by too much unthinking copying of the American university’s English department’s curriculum.
So first, I would suggest that one half of our English Major courses at least should be practical English courses, including the confrontational forms of debate and discussion mentioned above, and that our English Department’s main concern should be to produce graduates able to express intelligent, informed opinions about many aspects of life in good English. The second question I have tried to raise and hope to see more discussion of in future is the need for a much more specifically Korean dimension to our discipline. Our first duty toward the rising generation of Koreans is to provide them with knowledge about the complex English-speaking culture that is currently so dominant across the world, and provide them with adequate means to relate to it; but equally important, we need to provide them with a rather more specifically Korean form of resistance and response; one not inspired by fear, not expressed as conservative narrowness or reactionary xenophobia, but a mature ability to remain rooted in ones own cultural identity while interacting with people and artifacts whose cultural identity is other.

    What I have just been proposing would certainly represent another way of doing things. Yet, as you will have recognized, it would bring Korea much closer to its immediate neighbor to the West. In China, the main priority in all university English departments is given to teaching practical English. If literature or other aspects of culture are introduced at all, and they quite rarely are, care is taken to ensure that students view them through the lenses of ideological forms of theory, analyzing the western, individualistic alienations embodied in them, resisting their capitalistic and imperialistic presuppositions. Such an ideological filter is in itself not part of my program, but I think it might arise, and I could understand why it would. It is one quite obvious form of the “resistant reading” I have been advocating.

    I would like to finish by stressing my feeling that our students would benefit greatly from an undergraduate curriculum focusing almost entirely on practical English and current cultural realities, including contemporary literatures, in English, and with a major focus on the US. Then our Graduate School programs might find a new vigor and significance, offering a two-year MA in either “Literatures in English” that would include older literature, or in Culture, or in Linguistics. But I confess that I can see little point in the Graduate School programs we currently provide, and the small numbers applying for them suggest that young Koreans agree with me. I believe that we ought to be giving a strong priority to undergraduate teaching.

A recent visit by the British novelist Margaret Drabble has served to make many people in Korea aware of the novel she published last year, The Red Queen. Its first half retells the tragic life of Korea’s Crown Prince Sado through the ghostly voice of his widow, the Lady Hong. She recalls a brief visit her husband once made to Onyang: “He came back much disappointed, and much earlier than we expected him. Onyang, he complained, was a bore. The society was undistinguished and largely octogenarian . . . and the buildings were unimpressive. Even the landscape, he said, was dull. . . He wanted to set off again at once on another trip.” Soon after this, in fact, he went seriously mad and his royal father finally saw no other solution than to have him shut up inside a rice box until he died. I hope that we shall not return home unchanged, disappointed and complaining like the Crown Prince, that we shall escape the confines of the rice-box, and that we can rather find new hope and vision to face the challenges facing us in our profession today.