Mimi Lu completed her DPhil in English Literature at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral project, entitled ‘The Twentieth-Century English University and its Exclusions: Literature and the Politics of Expanding Higher Education,’ explored how twentieth-century literary writers responded to the changing ‘idea of the University’ and the politics of the mass expansion of higher education. She is now working on a new research project on Modernist Literature and Tort Law.
The University and the Afterlives of Modernism
This paper explores the entangled afterlives of modernism and Newman’s seminal Idea of a University, which has been a ‘silent point of reference’ since the treatise’s publication in 1852 for educationists, policy makers, and all those who think critically about the value and the purpose of higher education. The university—simultaneously a historical reality, a textual construct, a collective fantasy, and a fulcrum for wider social pressures and anxieties—preoccupied the modernist imaginary and became a key symbolic battleground where many of English society’s ideological tensions were concentrated and contested. I will use passages from a number of twentieth-century novels concerned with the university, including those by E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf, to illustrate how novels which directly engaged with competing ideas and wider cultural narratives about the university also tended to evince a heightened, self-reflexive interest in the forms of modernism and the manifold ways in which they were evolving. I posit that a growing cultural consciousness the universities were changing the production and consumption of literature itself, as increasing numbers of novelists and readers received tertiary education—not to mention often also training in literary scholarship and criticism within these institutionalised contexts—had a profound, hitherto underexplored impact on how modernism(s) and their legacies took shape.