Some of us have been lying. Buried in the classroom without time to check the facts, we've been repeating the common assertion that English only entered the school curriculum relatively recently. In 1983 The Guardian claimed "Our very notion of literacy... is a development of the late nineteenth century." Puzzled by such assertions, Ian Michael embarked upon an inquiry first published in 1987, but now reprinted.
His method was to examine English textbooks produced between the mid-16th century and 1870. Through an examination of spelling books, grammars, books of rhetoric and logic, and the anthologies of verse and prose which began to appear in the 18th century, he clearly established that the stuff of English was being taught, even if not always labelled as such, though at least one school had an English department by 1813.
In 1653 it must have seemed sensible to write an English grammar in Latin or, in 1797, to produce an anthology with the stern reassurance that "tales of love have not gained admission" and including only those poems which "wake... no passion". The teacher who warned me that humour was acceptable if used judiciously might still find a use for Francis Rokeby's textbook of 1701, which included dramatic poetry only if it would not "provoke laughter".
Bill Bryson would have had fun with this material, but this is a fastidiously academic work. Ian Michael makes no claim to know things not uncovered by his research. He acknowledges that study of textbooks gives little indication of what really went on in classrooms. He does not explain whose children were going to school, offer any reflections on the political ideologies which may have governed how English was delivered, or deal with how social and economic change may have affected how people saw the purpose of English.
The result is rather like watching a football match with only a view of the players' feet, or trying to make sense of the junk in a lumber room by looking round with a pen torch. Professor Michael is not prepared to sacrifice accuracy in order to sculpt a narrative of ideas. He ventures into comment on theories of learning, but gives no wider context of how children and their development were seen as a whole.
This is writing to inform, not to entertain. The result is fascinating, but after 385 pages of text and another 280 pages of bibliography, I felt I had been fascinated for quitelong enough.
David Buckley is former head of English at Tapton school, Sheffield, and Portland school, Worksop, and currently teaches part-time in Sheffield