English Studies is an academic discipline that includes the study of literature written in the English language, English linguistics, and English sociolinguistics. Initially, English Studies comprised a motley array of content: the practice of oratory, the study of rhetoric and grammar, the composition of poetry, and the appreciation of literature.
English was a relative latecomer to the university. What special training would one need, after all, to read the literature of one's own language?
It may seem strange that the founder of English was not English at all, but a Scottish polymath, Adam Smith ... Smith's lectures became part of the curriculum at the University of Glasglow, and his student Hugh Blair became professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres at Edinburgh. Blair's lectures, published in 1782 and a runaway best-seller, were in effect a how-to book: English literature was the way ambitious Scottish gentlemen turned themselves into North Britons.
Literature had to be studied along with language, otherwise it would not be an academic subject at all. So when the English course was finally set up at Oxford in 1894 it contained a very heavy element of historical language study - Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, Letto-Slavonic, Middle English, etc., from which it has still not managed to free itself entirely.
If one were asked to provide a single explanation for the growth of English studies in the later nineteenth century, one could do worse than reply: 'the failure of religion'.
In 19th century England... [literature was studied to] counter the selfishness and materialism fostered by the new capitalist economy, offering the middle classes and the aristocrats alternative values and giving the workers a stake in the culture that, materially, relegated them to a subordinate position.
However, I do not accept the simplistic view that the founders of English were motivated merely by a desire for ideological control. This was undoubtedly one of their motives, but the reality was much more complicated. There was, behind the teaching of early English, a distinctly Victorian mixture of class guilt about social inequalities, a genuine desire to improve things for everybody, a kind of missionary zeal to spread culture and enlightenment, and a self-interested desire to maintain social stability.
By the end of the nineteenth century, no single school of criticism dominated literary studies. For the most part, literary criticism was not even considered an academic activity
In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation.
With the emergence of New Criticism in the 1940s came the birth a growth of literature departments in colleges and universities across America. Its methodological and somewhat scientific approach to literature gained enormous support as monies for academic research expanded as as armed forces personnel returned to America from the battlefields of Europe after World War II.
Once upon a time, 'literature' meant above all poetry. The novel was a modern upstart, too close to biography or chronicle to be genuinely literary, a popular form that could not aspire to the high callings of lyric and epic poetry. But in the 20th century, the novel eclipsed poetry, both as what writers write and what readers read and, since the 1960s, narrative has come to dominate literary education as well.