Why Does the English Major Require a Survey Course?

1)  Historical/Cultural Awareness: Though almost all new English majors love reading and are fairly good at it, few have read enough to see the cultural context in which their literature was created.  Without that context, literature's meaning is so intensely personal that it is hard to communicate.  Learning literature's contexts helps one explain onesself to other English majors, and to scholars in the literatures of other languages. 

2)  Linguistic Awareness: Most new English majors come to the study of literature through modern English works.  Few have read anything before the twentieth or nineteenth century.  Almost none can read in any of the earlier forms of the language (Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English).  Because Modern English words carry meanings rooted in earlier forms of the language, readers who know only Modern English will hear only a fraction of the words' potential meanings.

3)  Generic Awareness: Most new English majors know only a few genres or types of literature, and only genres which follow almost no formal rules for composition: the novel and short story, free verse (i.e., poems without rhyme schemes, dominant meter, or stanza structure), and modern drama (plays often composed without acts or scenes).  The previous thousand years of English literature was composed and understood according to genre rules by poets whose reputation for skill rested in their adroit manipulation of those rules rather than in ignorance of them.  Even today, the rules continue to exert influence, if only because modern works' rule violations depend upon genre rules' shadowy but lost authority.

4)  Traditional Awareness:  Successful authors learn from previous authors' works in a compex reception of all three of the previous forms of awareness, cultural/linguistic/generic, in a chain of transmission similar to that which connects children with their parents.  When more recent authors read older authors who teach them how literature once was made, they are sometimes said to be receiving a "literary inheritance," a tradition of creation (from the Latin traditio, to hand down).  Reading the works that your favorite authors learned from helps you appreciate what new things they brought to the tradition of English literature, and what inheritance they have received from their own teachers, the previous authors.  Much of each era's "genius" is produced by the tradition, itself, acting through each generation's authors to recreate the language and its most significant works.  Once English majors have understood this network of relationships, they will understand better the struggles of each era's authors to master the inheritance of their literary ancestors and to break free of that inheritance to do something new with it.