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English’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

booksWhat happened to English?

According to the Modern Language Association, in the late 1960s and early 70s, English accounted for about 7.5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees granted in the United States, but the portion plummeted to around 3.5 percent in the early 80s, climbed a bit to nearly 5 percent in the early 90s, then dropped steadily to 3.47 percent in 2004.  English has gone from a major unit in the university to a minor one, its standing propped up largely by freshman writing requirements and creative-writing courses. At Emory University, where I teach English, when I arrived in 1989 and soon became director of undergraduate studies, the number of majors reached 350. Today, our majors linger at around 150.

Many professors blame the decline on external forces, including the rise of undergraduate business majors, a general emphasis among students on careerism and among politicians and administrators on workplace readiness, the expansion of career options for women (the MLA highlights that factor), and steady criticism from conservative and libertarian commentators for the discipline’s ideological drift. But while all those factors have some relevance, what my colleagues across the country fail to acknowledge is their own culpability in the field’s deterioration.

Let me give an example (one, I should note, that I’ve written about here, eliciting a rebuttal here).

The University of Minnesota has a dual-enrollment program whereby 11th- and 12th-graders can earn college credit for completing courses in their schools that match courses designed by the university. The university develops the courses and trains teachers as part of its College in the Schools program, and in 2011-12, 112 high schools provided courses enrolling 6,484 students. Smart students ready for college-level work can take what amounts to first-year college courses and get a head start on their postsecondary education, taking, for instance, courses in political science, intermediate French, and introductory college physics.

These standard introductory courses acquaint 17-year-olds with basic methods and subject matter. The physics course promises to examine “Fundamental principles of physics in the context of everyday world,” while “Introduction to Psychology” will cover “Problems, methods, findings of modern psychology.”

But there is one exception to that straightforward approach: “English Literature (ENGL 1001W—Introduction to Literature: Poetry, Drama, Narrative).”  The opening statement sounds like the other courses, blandly advertising “basic techniques for analyzing/understanding literature.” What follows, however, is a jarring swerve away from generic methods and materials and toward an advanced and tendentious presentation.

First, the course description contains a list of 86 books from which the reading list may be drawn. Nearly all of them are contemporary, multiculturalist works focused on race, gender, class, and sexuality.  The number of classics (Conrad, Hemingway, Faulkner, Hurston, Ellison) comes in at less than 10, while Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Tim O’Brien, and Louise Erdrich account for nine. No Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Yeats, Frost, Hughes, or Bishop—instead only a few recent poets including June Jordan and Billy Collins. By phone, the head of the program told me that teachers must choose from this list until they have several years of experience in the program. Identity themes dominate, as a statement on one of the sample syllabi demonstrates: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and other forms of bigotry are inherent in our culture.” Why would a first-year intro to reading “techniques” announce such a sweeping, controversial judgment of American society?

The critical approach, too, bypasses the basics. A sample syllabus states that students will examine and produce interpretations “from a variety of critical perspectives,” including Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, LGBT, and psychoanalytic. That is, of course, an upside-down approach. Deconstruction, for example, is a dense critical school derived from Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, and Derrida himself asserted in 1990 that one must work through “the canonical texts” before entering upon the recondite conceptual analysis he practiced. Paul de Man said the same thing when advising the University of California at Irvine how to revise its comparative-literature curriculum. He highlighted theory as the center, which is to say, a set of problems of interpretation, but he insisted that the responsible practice of theory presupposed that students had first read widely in literary traditions. To ask 17-year-olds to produce a psychoanalytic reading before leading them through The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, as well as Freud’s essays on art and literature, Lacan on language, and so on, is to coax them into an absurd position.

I imagine that the characteristics of Minnesota’s English literature intro are familiar to Chronicle readers, and so are the accusations of politicization and indoctrination leveled against such courses. But for the moment, never mind all that and simply consider the course as a disciplinary object. It calls itself an “introduction,” a first-year course that fulfills a basic requirement. But whereas other courses offer generic openings that explain the approach that psychology and other fields take to certain subject matters, the English course selects a narrow, nontraditional domain—contemporary identity literature—and esoteric approaches to it. The fundamentals of the tradition (Shakespeare, Milton, Romantic poets, modernist poets) are missing, and so are the fundamentals of literary reading (prosody, rhetoric, figurative language, structure, genre, etc.).

Here we see the internal destruction of English as a field. While other disciplines arrange their curricula in graduated sequence, moving from fundamental to advanced and from broad issues to special topics, English scrambles its materials and methods from beginning to end. The texts and approaches in Minnesota’s 1001 course could just as easily fall into a graduate seminar, with a difference only in rigor. I have seen the same thing in departments all across the country, freshman courses that teach Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” departments that don’t require a sophomore Chaucer-to-Joyce survey for the major, professors unpersuaded that Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge are more important than Angels in America.

This is not to denigrate the identity-politics readings and sophisticated cultural theories often found in English classes from 12th grade to graduate school. The problem is one of structure first and content second. It signals not political correctness, primarily, but an incoherent field. Unlike other disciplines, English no longer distinguishes degrees of difficulty and significance. It turns an introductory course into something else—a hasty acquaintance with complex ideas such as différance, a quick indoctrination in complex identity matters, a hip involvement with edgy novels—and most students who receive it, I would guess, discern the decadence of the enterprise. Many are turned off by the tendentious social dispositions, but more important, they sense a curriculum coming apart and they lose confidence in the instruction.

First-year courses influence undergraduates’ choice of major, and English offerings fail to induct those students into the pipeline. After all, the campus is a competitive environment, and when students compare fields with clear steps and progressive knowledge to fields with a random jumble of works and methods, they make a rational choice to steer clear.

(Photo by Flickr/CC user azrasta)

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