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Ellis, David

Memoirs of a Leavisite: The Decline and Fall of Cambridge English


One of Ellis’ themes is how the teaching of literature has changed since Leavis’ time. A small, sunburned man with shirt open to his sternum, Leavis endeavoured to elicit a personal response to literature from “the slothful, philistine and half-educated creatures who sat before him”. He was, Ellis recalls, “endlessly indulgent”. We don’t ask students for their personal response today, we ask that they meet the assessment criteria and if they can’t, well, we will just have to think of some other way for them to pass.

The idea that studying literature enables us to know ourselves and each other a little better has little to offer the corporate university. Those who still believe in the value of a unique arrangement of words on the page are, in Ellis’ perfect phrase, “haunted with a sense of belatedness”.

This book is in large part a lament for the destruction of a humane conception of literature by the commodification of higher education. Ellis feels that he, too, may have played a part in that process by failing to uphold “Leavisian principles”.

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