October 21, 2009
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English Woes

HTLit points out a fine piece by William M. Chace on The Decline of the English Department.

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is 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.

Those who follow the issue might be led by the language here to conclude that Chace is merely reviving the canon wars, but I think there’s more to see here.

Chace, I think, does overlook a further important factor. The late age of print led English departments to question whether there could be a single correct answer to any of the important questions that one might ask of an English professor. This leads, for example, to the strange situation where a prominent marketing pro Twitters:

Thinking of writing a book? how U structure a book is important 2 the success of a book. R there any books on how 2 structure book content?

Harvard and Tufts and BU and Brown and Brandeis are right down the street, and they all have English departments who, in principle, know a lot about the structure of books. Or maybe not.

This uncertainty has a deeper consequence for students: if any answer might be defensible, if the whole question is how adeptly you defend your position, then grading is arbitrary and capricious. Your math teacher may dislike you, but if you answered 0.707 on the test, well, that’s the answer and there’s nothing more to be said. The absence of that certainty, at least in the airy heights of research, has got to dismay students. (I’ve never studied in an English department, but I’ve dealt with reviewers and critics and referees and I know it dismays me.)