October 10, 2009
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The Decline Of The English Department

In The American Scholar, William Chace shows us what happened, and also shows How To Do It with some lovely, magisterial prose.

English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit. English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them. While aware of their increasing marginality, English professors do not, on the whole, accept it. Reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances—some of which are not under their control—they react by asserting grandiose claims while pursuing self-centered ends. Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline. Unable to change history or rewrite economic reality, they might at least have kept their own house in order. But this they have not done.

Chace observes that, while Geology and Medicine have clear frontiers of knowledge, English doesn’t; it’s not patently clear that there’s more to learn about Shakespeare in the way that there’s more to learn about H1N1.

At the bottom of Chace’s article, I came across two advertisements. One promotes the University of Phoenix, which arguably is not a university. One promotes Houghton College, “Christian academic community with a Higher Purpose in Mind” – a real college, though one that might want to rethink its use of capital letters if not its ad copy. Still, can Phi Beta Kappa find a less embarrassing source of pocket change?

Elsewhere, Diane Greco is tired of magic wands and has taken to reading Damon Runyan to her daughter.

Tonight, while we are eating dinner, MJ asks Jane about a new teacher at school. What's she like? Is she tall or short? Mean or nice? Old or young?"

I will give you a hint," Jane says, in a tone that I can only call Runyonesque. "She is not young."