The work of G.H. Durrant : English studies and the community.
Meihuizen, Elizabeth M. M.
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This study concerns the writing of Geoffrey Hugh Durrant. Durrant’s writing is to a large extent academic in nature, but he also comments on the broader South African society during the course of the 1940s and 1950s. The study has two interrelated objectives, the first archival in nature and the second more theoretical. The archival objective entails bringing to attention Durrant’s writing produced during the period he spent in South Africa. At present this archive remains largely unexplored. The second objective is to relate this body of writing to current thinking regarding the mission of university English Studies in South Africa. The study of languages and literatures in South Africa today finds itself in a complex situation of ongoing changes within the university as an institution, the broader system of education, and a society which in many respects can still be described as becoming a “New South Africa”. This is also true for university English Studies. It will be argued that in this process of transition Durrant’s writing, informed by the challenge to university English Studies to define itself as an independent academic discipline with an essential educational and social function, offers a valuable perspective. In defining the task of English Studies at the university Durrant aligns himself with the critical tradition which at a conceptual level originated in the writing of Matthew Arnold by the middle of the nineteenth century, but came to full fruition only after 1917 in the Cambridge English School. Durrant has to be credited for a measure of original thought and for making a personal contribution to this critical framework in for instance his definition of the concept “practical criticism”. He also has to be credited for including politics into the cultural analysis implicit in this critical framework, something which was never done by the Cambridge critics. This, for Durrant, means that his duty as citizen is not to be separated from his duty as university teacher. Durrant believes that indifference and failure to judge unacceptable political developments will ultimately endanger the values of society and make a self-respecting existence impossible. For university teachers an attitude of indifference will eventually leave the universities with no authority, unable to fulfil their essential task. Durrant sees the university as guardian of a specific type of intellectual activity and therefore as indispensable to society. The essential duty of the university is to cultivate an ability of critical discernment, and it is in this realm that the task of the university and that of English Studies coincide. For Durrant the social mission of English Studies depends on the fostering of a critical ability through engagement with the particular form of language use unique to the literary text. The standards of thought and understanding set by the literary text function as touchstones for life in all its various aspects, and mastery of this type of text affords the level of critical discernment necessary as foundation for a civil self capable of critical judgement.