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Decline of the English Department

William M. Chace writes a thoughtful article on the decline of English as a college major and, more generally, as a coherent discipline. First the numbers.  In one generation (1970-2003), the number of students majoring in English dropped almost in half, from 7.6% to 3.9%, reflecting a general decline in the number of humanities majors (business is apparently now the most popular major).  Chace offers several reasons for this, but the main one is this:

the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

I would add, they have distanced themselves from the young people who might be interested in using books to think about life and its questions.  Among many other interesting arguments and observations, Chace reports that Harvard University recently replaced its survey of English literature for undergraduates with four new "affinity groups" - "Arrivals," "Poets," "Diffusions," and "Shakespeares."  Sounds inspiring.  And clear. (Incidentally, I had heard that Shakespeare didn't exist, but not that there were several of him.) The idea is that the content of the old survey will "trickle down" to students, but if no one takes thought that it happen, how likely is that?  To his credit, Chace cautiously defends the idea of a tradition of English literature, and even intimates that those in the field ought to have a "sense of duty" towards the works of English or American literature.  "Without such traditions," he concludes, "civil societies have no moral compass to guide them."  It will be interesting to see how (or whether) the profession responds.

Categories > Education

Discussions - 7 Comments

I think that Victor Davis Hanson's analysis in the Death of Homer is relevant. He posits that few want to study the ancient Greeks since their heroism and civilization-building has been replaced by sexist, racist, imperialist, slaveowners by the post-modernists. The same may be true for studying the American Revolution and English, which is filled with post-structuralists, post-modernists, post-colonialists, and every other fashionable post - you can think of. If great literature and the human condition is reduced to "no authors, only texts" or whatever other incomprehensible theories and jargon, why wonder why no one wants to study it except for the 3 or 4 grad students delivering incomprehensible papers to each other at some sad, pathetic academic conference.

I offered to substitute for a full-time professor in the English dept. who will be out for a few weeks. I thought it would be interesting to see how a PhD in the subject teaches the same course that I teach. It is interesting. I am confronted with an incomprehensible syllabus and a classroom full of frustrated and confused students. The reader used in the course has a multi-cultural perspective and the course may be about discovering alternate truths. I cannot really tell and the students don't know, in this, the third week of the course. They tell me the course is really about the professor, her life and her truth. I happen to know that she thinks all truth is subjective, so that makes a variety of perfect sense.

I have just wiped away a long passage of whining on this topic. To sum up, the worst thing about this course is that it will teach these students almost nothing about the language or literature and it has a very strange idea about the human condition. The students have paid for an education, even if just a cheap community college education, and this what they get? This profits them nothing. Next worst thing may be that it is boring.

Next week the reading is on "The Ecology of Magic" with an ancillary descriptive essay on shamanism. According to the syllabus, I am to have them make drawings or find images online or in magazines that express something about the spiritual power that is in animals and things and we will discuss that in class..

How am I supposed to do that with a straight face?

If this professor really thinks thinks that all truth is subjective, then maybe her male students should either just blow off class, have some drinks, and demand an "A" or else just come to class, steal her purse, rap her behind, and put their feet up while drinking a couple of brewskis while listening to some blaring heavy metal. They can call it the new revolutionary post-educational self-realization blah, blah, blah, or just say, "It's all about experience, don't be so judgmental. Just shut up honey, and give me an A." I wonder if she start acting like a hegemon who believes in absolute truth and judges their actions then. So much for a multi-cultural, relative, subjective truth.

Paraphrasing Orwell, perhaps, all truths are equal, but some equal truths are more equal than others.

No, this professor, who is actually a friend, would expect a moral compass, civility and a sense of duty in her students that she would not impose for reasons of principle. You are right, Tony, she would be lost if her students behaved logically in the "diffused" situation. How will people get those important and beautiful civil and intellectual parameters if her multi-culturalism becomes as pervasive as she claims that it should be?

So, essentially she is using her power to threaten them (at least implicitly) into good behavior and violating her own relative "principles." I guess no one is truly allowed to have an "alternative truth" unless they're rooted in overcoming race, class, gender, and imperial oppressions.

Yes, I think that is about it. However, I do not think anyone ever actually fails her class. This may be reasonable, because her former students have told me that no one actually learns much, either.

If this is normal, and the Chace article indicates it may be, no wonder no one takes English as a college major. Why bother?

Having read The American Scholar for probably over thirty years, I could only feel the most seething contempt for the Autumn 2009 article by William M. Chace, “The Decline of the English Department: How it happened and what could be done to reverse it.”

His ideas are all the moaning litany. For new ideas, see my blog.

Frederick Glaysher

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