Leavis, Meiklejohn, and Universities: the Idea of ‘a New Idea’

TitleLeavis, Meiklejohn, and Universities: the Idea of ‘a New Idea’
Publication TypeConference Proceedings
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsStorer, R
Conference NameLeavis and the Confrontation with Modernity
Date Published05/2017
Conference LocationCentre for Modern Studies at the University of York

I started this paper by noting two features of Leavis’s writing in the early 1930s which are missing from much of his later work. One is the ‘journalistic’ character of the many short pieces he wrote for the early Scrutiny and other publications – with his PhD thesis not too distant a memory, the adjective perhaps still had some positive connotations. The other feature is Leavis’s preoccupation with American culture, determined by his perception that ‘For “drift of American life” . . . we can read “drift of modern life”: American conditions are the conditions of modern civilization’.

These two tendencies in Leavis’s early writing bore fruit in Education and the University (1943), which had its origin in a short review he wrote in 1932 – and which in its final form is a kind of extended dialogue, about modernity and the proper response to it, with five modern American authors : Pound, Eliot, Babbitt, Brooks Otis – and Alexander Meiklejohn.

My view is that Education and the University is Leavis’s most important book – the groundwork for what is important in the others. But Meiklejohn’s significance, as the educational reformer whose 1932 work The Experimental College helped Leavis to focus his own thinking about universities, has not been much considered. For this paper I drew on a useful new source for revisiting this issue, Adam R. Nelson’s Education and Democracy:

The Meaning of Alexander Meiklejohn (2001). Though Nelson does not mention Leavis, the issue I wanted to consider was: Education and the University - the meaning of putting Meiklejohn and Leavis together.

I began by outlining some of the background to Meiklejohn’s experiment in college education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. What appealed to Leavis about the experiment was the idea of the ‘scheme of reference’ – the attempt to understand modern America by being able to compare it to ancient Athens - around which the experimental curriculum was organised. Leavis rejected the idea of an Athens-America comparison but retained the idea of an organising ‘scheme of reference’ which would enable students – and the university – to get a critical perspective on the ‘drift of modern life’. In Leavis’s scheme, the study of the seventeenth century as a ‘key phase, or passage, in the history of civilization’ fulfilled this function.

I concluded by comparing the profiles of Leavis and Meiklejohn as educational reformers, noting their differences but also the aptness of Meiklejohn’s belief, even after the failure of his experiment at Madison, in ‘radical departures’.

Author Biography

Dr Richard Storer is a Senior Lecturer in English at Leeds Trinity University and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is the author of F. R. Leavis (2009) in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series, and also co-edited, with Ian MacKillop, F. R. Leavis: Essays and Documents (1996). He will be the author of the forthcoming article on F. R. Leavis in the Oxford University Press ‘Oxford Bibliographies’ online series.