The American Scholar: The Decline of the English Department – William M. Chace

“I still teach, and do so with a veteran’s pride in what I know and what I hope I can give. My classrooms are, I hope, bright and sunny places where we can spend good time with Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But I know what some of my students sense, that what we do now faces an array of problems, any one of which might prove surmountable, but which together amount to an enervating spectacle. Fewer and fewer undergraduates are showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else’s; the pleasure of undergraduate reading is everywhere blighted by worries about money and career; university administrators are more likely to classify “literary types” as budgetary liabilities than as assets; the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned “close reading” spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes; and the youngest would-be professionals, shrinking in number, stare at diminished job prospects.

It would be a pleasure to map a way out of this academic dead end. First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.

I have also wanted to believe that English and American literature constitutes a subject of study that is historically coherent and shaped by the intrinsic design of its own making. The causes giving it that shape can be analyzed, as can the merit and integrity of each of the achievements within it. And students, without whose energetic presence the study will wither, can be attracted to an activity—partly aesthetic and partly detective-like—in which they can participate along with teachers who bring enthusiasm to the work at hand. Like young scientists teaming together with older scientists at the same workbench, they can be made to feel that what they are doing makes sense, is shared by others, and will result in knowledge worth having. Perhaps they, the youngest generation, can labor with their teachers in putting together the house that has forfeited its sense of order. If they do, they can graduate with the knowledge that they possess something: a fundamental awareness of how a certain powerful literature was created over time, how its parts fit together, and how the process of creation has been renewed and changed through the centuries.

Some of their detective work could involve topics of great current interest—the role of race or gender or sexuality in the making of a work. But the focus would or should be on the books, not on the theories they can be made to support. English departments need not refight the Western culture wars. But they need to fight their own book wars. They must agree on which texts to teach and argue out the choices and the principles of making them if they are to claim the respect due a department of study.”  — more —

via The American Scholar: The Decline of the English Department – William M. Chace.

My time in graduate school and the  “profession of English literature” ended in 1973  — during the peak years of English departments.  I had left business.  At three universities I made up an English major, earned my M.A., and  completed course work for the Ph.D.   (See “Ph.D. -R.I.P” ) in The Tortoise Factor.    I have not found a better summary of the context of my days  in the humanities than Chace’s essay — nor the passion of a more committed professor.  So much of what he says, I felt in those days — particularly the degradation of the teaching of English composition.    Over forty years there has been no appreciable change in the “profession of English.”   Something precious is being lost with the decline of the humanities in the University —, much of it explainable in the passage of time for the reasons Chace cites.  But much of it is due to the dereliction of duty by a self-serving profession that let the precious slide away. Even a Graduate Teaching Assistant could see it then and many of us did.  There were of course a few like Professor Chace.  I just never met any.

I will just refer to the film, “The Paper Chase” to capture the essence of the time and Chace’s essay.  Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., a law professor played by John Houseman told his first year law students, “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds.  You come in here with a skull full of mush and ;  if you survive, leave, thinking like a lawyer.”

In all those six years as a striker in the “profession of English literature,” I never heard nor met a professor who felt any obligation to train the mind.  They were dedicated to their own minds and careers. There was no effort to teach or even mentor “thinking like a professor.”  And, of course, there was nothing like the bar exam for assessing one’s knowledge in breadth and depth.  But then the law is a profession.  Undoubtedly we were expected to teach ourselves literature and criticism.  Indeed, it was sink or swim.  And every teacher had his own swimming pool. The Sixties and Seventies were anarchic.   Many of our heads were full of mush; indeed, it was the style.  Universities could not control it all.   There was no center to hold.  There still isn’t. Thank you Professor Chace.

David Milliken


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