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The Real Reasons Why the English Department Died

Most professors would rather watch it die than reform.

· 9 min read
The Real Reasons Why the English Department Died
Yale English Department Faculty, 1967.

I’ve worked as a professor in an English department for the last 15 years, and I spent the 10 years prior to that as a student in English. Over the course of that time there was never a period when the English major wasn’t in decline. For the first half of the 20th century, English departments occupied a critical and celebrated position in the American university. But by the time of Sputnik and the beginning of the space race, the field had begun a long slide into obscurity.

Today, most people who take English departments seriously are English professors and the handful of students who still choose the major. Current university administrators see the English department as serving a gatekeeping role: the required freshman-level courses generate massive enrollment, mostly from students who are not prepared for the demands of college writing. Thus, in the eyes of the administration, the job of the English department is remedial—getting those students “up to speed” so that they can do the writing required by their majors (which are overwhelmingly housed in other departments). Liberally educated professors in other disciplines often have a nostalgic reverence for the humanities and humanistic knowledge, but they know that English professors no longer serve as guardians of that tradition. In fact, it’s common knowledge that the vast majority of English faculty are resolutely opposed to traditional notions of humanistic inquiry. For that reason, they have become a parody of the erudition that used to be synonymous with literary study.

But why are students rejecting what English departments have to offer? This is a topic that is little discussed by English professors. It’s not unlike visiting an old friend who is in a losing battle against cancer: to the extent that you even address the gravity of the situation, you do so briefly and obliquely. Recently though, there’s been some semi-serious discussion of the causes of the English department’s poor health. The title of an article in the New Yorker (“The End of the English Major”) acknowledged that the case might be terminal. This piece was followed by a somewhat sunnier Substack post by journalist Andrew Boryga called “The English Department Has a Marketing Problem.”

Listening to English professors discuss this disaster is like listening to a lifelong smoker give you a dozen reasons for his lung cancer diagnosis—none of which have anything to do with cigarettes. Thus, it’s good that some writers are facing this issue head-on: if the patient is to be cured, we’ll need a proper diagnosis. Unfortunately, though, neither of the pieces cited above shows any real grasp of the true reasons for the decline. This is remarkable, because the reasons aren’t too hard to ascertain.

I remain convinced that English could still play a meaningful role in liberal education, so I feel a duty to explain exactly what went wrong. Nevertheless, it must be said at the outset that even with a correct diagnosis, the English department probably won’t be saved. Sadly, most English professors would rather watch it die. Let me explain.

Reason 1: Disdain for the “real world”

English professors celebrate the inclusivity and accessibility of the modern university. Whereas higher education used to be available only to the children of the upper (or upper-middle) class, today anyone can get accepted to college. Further, anyone who gets accepted will be eligible for some financial aid, and those who come from lower-income families are often eligible for Pell grants that don’t need to be paid back at all.

All of this means that a large proportion of college freshmen come from minority groups who have been historically excluded from the university; many of them are “first-generation” students—the first in their families to attend college. Understandably, most of these students come to college for one reason: they are seeking professional advancement and upward class mobility.

This makes them averse to an English major for two reasons. First, an English degree does not provide an unambiguous path to a specific career. Thus, many students don’t see it as a viable option. Those who would consider an English major are often discouraged by parents who would rather see their children get a degree in business, science, accounting, or law. In short, English studies don’t seem to provide a way to climb the ladder in the real world of employment. This is the “marketing problem” that Boryga sees as the major issue—but it goes deeper than that.

Even as they try to convince students that an English degree does have some market value, English professors often mock the valid concerns of students and their parents. This is the second reason that students are averse to English: many professors (when they aren’t “interrogating” or “deconstructing” the very concept of “the real world”) openly express their loathing for the real world. They emphasize that the system which so many prospective students want to climb is morally indefensible—one that is concerned only with money, and one that embodies the legacy of a Western tradition that is racist, capitalist, misogynist, colonialist, xenophobic, and homophobic (and any other nasty “-ist” or “-ic” you can imagine). The professors aren’t trying to scare off students. But if someone keeps unwittingly telling you that your concerns and interests are misplaced, vain, and stupid… well, it follows that you might keep your distance.

This is perhaps the reason for the failure of the English major. But it’s not the only one.

Reason 2: Disdain for objective standards of value

There used to be something called the “literary canon.” As Matthew Arnold explained, it consisted of “the best of what’s been thought and said.” In short, the canon was the collection of texts that were excellent and worthy of study—it served as the foundation of a particular (Western) intellectual tradition and a way of life. Historically speaking, English professors were held to be the guardians of that tradition—their expertise was rooted in their unique ability to assess which works should be included. Further, as critics and interpreters, they had a special ability to unlock these texts for others. In essence, they offered a secret knowledge to students—a transcendent wisdom that was beyond the grasp of other disciplines.

But for the last 40 years or so, attacking the very existence of a canon has been a central project of English departments. Canonicity, they decided, was simply one more form of covert bigotry that sought to “marginalize” the voices of writers and thinkers who did not conform to the values and beliefs of “dead white males.” At first, the lesson was that some deserving writers had been unfairly excluded from the canon (true). But eventually, the lesson became that any claim that one text is inherently superior to another is a form of oppression (false).

By “deconstructing” the canon, English professors ultimately deconstructed the very grounds of their claim to intellectual authority. If no text is better than any other one, and if the matter of interpretation is the sole, subjective province of the individual, what do we need English professors for? Is it any coincidence that the decline of English accelerated as the attacks on the canon intensified? Basically, the discipline decided that it would deliberately refuse to teach students the transcendent wisdom that they wanted to learn.

This is why distinguished faculty like Greenblatt (quoted in the New Yorker piece) are now telling us that English departments need to focus more on analyzing TV shows. He’s about 20 years late to this revelation. Any survey of English syllabi will show an insatiable appetite for cultural ephemera: zombie movies, Harry Potter, and graphic novels.

Today, English departments are essentially telling students that we don’t have anything very important to teach them. We shouldn’t blame them for taking us at our word.

Reason 3: Love of literature, disdain for the practical

If students want to be prepared to maximize their prospects for employment, English departments could grant this wish. Writing ability and skill in textual production are still much sought after in the professional world. The English major could be redesigned in such a way that decenters the teaching of literature (a focus that embodies a kind of vestigial tail—see Reason 2). Instead, the curriculum could forefront rhetoric, textual production, publishing, argumentation, and instructional strategies to assist in the teaching of these skills. In this way, the department could shift away from reading, thinking, and critiquing and towards writing, speaking, and creating. But most English professors view composition skills as prerequisites—mere elementary abilities that precede the real business of literary analysis and social criticism.

Look at any English department and you will find that the vast majority of the faculty specialize in some minor area of literary study (e.g., “postcolonial literature” or “women’s literature” or “18th-century British drama”). They aren’t merely reluctant to teach skills related to composition—many are unable to teach them. And since the faculty with expertise in literature are the majority in almost every English department, they resist any curricular change that would de-emphasize literature in favor of more practical skills. This tracks with their disdain for the concerns of the “real world” (see Reason 1).

Reason 4: Disdain for the rules of writing

Having dismissed their duties as guardians of the canon, the main role left for English lay in the remedial writing instruction that most professors hold in disregard. Still, the more the rest of the university came to view the purpose of the department in this way, the more the English faculty resisted.

As noted above, many college freshmen are considerably underprepared to produce effective college writing. Many high schools only demand that students to compose 10–12 total pages of writing across their entire senior year—not nearly enough to equip them for the 40–60 pages of writing that they will do in their first semester of college. Thus, the average freshman is a poor-to-middling writer who will naturally avoid an English major, and due to the unusually large amount of writing it requires.

Sadly though, even the students who major in English because they do want to become more effective writers will not receive much guidance from their professors. This is because many English teachers have decided that the formal rules of grammar and the stylistic conventions of academic writing are (like basically everything else) tools of oppression, exclusion, and White Supremacy©. In fact, as early as 1974, the major professional organization for teachers of college writing had already announced they were giving up on teaching writing. Rather than train students to produce better writing by refining their mastery of these standards, many English teachers openly encourage students to “write in their own voice” and resist the “unjust” expectations that any reading audience imposes on a text. In practice, this means they ignore grammatical errors, slang, faulty argumentation, and (sometimes) even outright plagiarism.

Reason 5: Love of “theory”

For as much as English professors claim to love all things “inclusive,” “accessible,” and “democratic,” very few of the works that they assign are deserving of any of those adjectives. Much of the reading they assign is literary theory, critical theory, and Continental philosophy—forms of writing that forefront notoriously complex ideas expressed in such a way that very few non-experts can make any sense of them. Works from thinkers like Foucault, Judith Butler, Kant, and Gloria Anzaldúa are not uncommon in undergraduate syllabi. When professors openly challenge students’ conceptions of “the real world” (see Reason 1), assigning difficult readings that have no discernible connection to that world only adds insult to injury.

The problem here is that the texts assigned in English courses are often written in a way that deliberately excludes most readers. A key feature of such works is their inaccessibility, an implicit elitism, and a style that can only be honestly described as “anti-democratic.” In short, reading lists in the English department sometimes highlight that the experts in the field practice something much different from what they preach—another hypocrisy that alienates savvy students.

Reason 6: They’d rather watch the field die than reform it (as long as…)

The previous five reasons for the death of the English major could easily be corrected. Indeed, the major at many Christian colleges, for example, looks much different than at public, secular universities. At the public schools, though, English professors could take seriously the desire of a student to be made a good fit for career success in the existing system and order—they could stop purposely making them unfit for that world (in accordance with the advice of English-department favorite Paulo Freire) and stop encouraging them to “dismantle” the world as it is (thereby addressing Reason 1).

Experts could realize that (historically speaking) the vitality of their discipline was linked to objective standards of excellence in writing, thought, and expression, and they could recommit themselves to transmitting and maintaining those standards in relation to both the canon and student writing (addressing Reasons 2 and 4).

English departments could move the focus of their curriculum away from forms of literary criticism and analysis, redesigning their courses in a way that forefronts practical applications and skill in the production of texts (addressing Reason 3).

Syllabi could be reformulated to include only texts that are genuinely accessible for a student body that is largely unprepared for serious academic work—readings that, while demonstrating a mastery of textual expression, also discuss topics that immediately relate to practical concerns in their lives (addressing Reason 5).

But English departments won’t make any of these changes. Indeed, many professors wouldn’t know how to implement them if they wanted to. But even if they did know how to do so, the majority wouldn’t. That’s because what they most value about the field as it exists today is its countercultural bona fides, its elitist sensibilities, and its strong commitment to left-political activism and indoctrination. Making the reforms above would gut the discipline of all of these treasured (but mutually-contradictory) components. Thus, most professors would rather watch the major die than reform it. That is, of course, as long as the death can be forestalled until a year or two after their retirement.

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