J.R.R. Tolkien, remembered today mainly for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was for many years a professor of English language and literature at Oxford. As such, according to Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings, he was an active participant in the debate over whether the department's emphasis should be placed on language or literature.
Tolkien came down on the language side of the argument, but he wasn't talking about teaching modern grammar usage. Rather, he wanted to teach ancient and medieval English, early Anglo-Saxon, so students could read the only kinds of literature he thought an English department should teach, those books and stories from the distant past that he loved so well.
C.S. Lewis, also a member of the Oxford faculty at the time, took another side in the quarrel. He loved modern English literature, by which he meant literature written after the time of Chaucer. "For him (Lewis) the great works of post-Chaucerian literature had, after all, been a source of joy since boyhood," Carpenter writes. "Spenser was a particular favorite with him. He knew comparatively little Anglo-Saxon literature ... So the notion that the earliest part of the course was of special importance - or, as Tolkien put it, that 'the language is the real thing' - seemed an exaggeration."
In time, Tolkien and Lewis compromised and became close friends. Lewis, in fact, later credited Tolkien with being one of the influences that led to his conversion to Christianity.
No doubt their debate over what exactly should be taught in English classes has been repeated in English departments everywhere. Even in high school, as I recall from way back in the early '60s, there seemed to be some tension between teaching good writing and reading good books. Which benefited students most? How much time should be spent on each? Term papers and book reviews were a good way to compromise the two objectives.
By the time I was in college, most of us were assumed to have learned basic spelling and grammar, and the focus was placed on literature. But which literature? I took a class on contemporary fiction, which, thinking back, could have been controversial with some faculty members in the English department. Why, someone may have asked, should we teach them Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when these are novels students are likely to read on their own? Would it not be better to teach literature they would be less likely to read voluntarily.
If some professors did make that argument, they may have been right. I had, in fact, already read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by the time I took the course, and I probably would have read Catch-22 on my own eventually. Meanwhile, I have not dipped into Beowulf since we touched on it in high school.
Yet teaching more contemporary literature serves the purpose of making students aware that great books are still being written today and that English, as a scholarly subject, is not something that ended a century or more ago. The body of work worth study is ever growing.
With each passing year, I would think English departments would have more to argue about.