Much has been written about the ideological role that literature performs. Literature is typically seen as a key mechanism in the production of human subjects, that is to say, forms of subjectivity that rob people of any capacity to critically engage with the society around them. Critics point to documents in the history of the formation of subject English, such as the Newbolt Report of 1921, to argue that notions of literary value and of a specifically English literary canon have been used to blunt any recognition of class structure and to privilege bourgeois culture over other cultures, other ways of reading and responding to the world. The overarching aim of the Newbolt Report was, in this reading, to prevent the emergence of a working-class consciousness through promoting a spurious notion of national identity embodied in an English literary canon.

An ideology of English and Englishness still shapes much debate about English as a school subject, and specifically the role that literature teaching should play in the curriculum. Our aim in this chapter, however, is to look again at the ideological role that literature teaching can play from the standpoint of the exchanges that actually occur around literary texts in classroom settings. At the core of our analysis will be a reconsideration of the ideological nature of the literary text, and whether it is meaningful to ascribe an ideology to the text itself. We will contend that the meaning (or ideology) of a text is always a function of the situation in which it is read and appropriated, which is to say that classrooms should be conceived of simultaneously as sites for the imposition of ideological hegemony and for resistance to it.

This chapter will draw upon interviews conducted with English teachers in the UK in which they give an account of their professional praxis as literature teachers, reflecting on both the constraints under which they work and the possibilities opened up for their students through their engagement in literary texts.