You hear rumors that something’s rotten in the state of higher education, and then you see it for yourself.
My son is taking a class through the local community college. He’s wants to get some of his basic requirements out of the way before going to the university in a year or two. It’s a college writing course but his professor has made it into a seminar on grievance studies. She has a lot to say about diversity and inclusion but remarkably little to say about writing. Rather than introduce her students to good examples of English prose on which to model their own, she points them instead to emotionally incontinent blog posts that check all the politically correct boxes but are riddled with grammar mistakes and errors of logic.
I was an English major at a small liberal arts school in the early 1990s. Most of my teachers were uninterested in critical theory. They loved literature for its own sake and they believed in and taught the canon. How dismaying when I recently learned that my old English department has now rebranded itself the department of “English and Cultural Studies.” The current department head and other professors (most of my old teachers are retired or dead) mumble woke catchphrases and seem to go about their educational task apologetically. The love is gone. They have surrendered to political propaganda.
It makes me angry. Joseph Epstein, who was an English major at the University of Chicago and taught at Northwestern University for thirty years, understands. In his 2008 essay, “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature,” he writes:
“One of the reasons for anger at the theory-ridden English departments of our day is that they sold out the richness of literature for a small number of crude ideas – gender, race, class, and the rest of it – and hence gave up their cultural birthright for a pot of message.”
That was twelve years ago and things are only worse now. For today’s “English and Cultural Studies” majors, Epstein is nothing but an old fart in denial of the One and Only Righteous Cause. Does he imagine they really signed on to read books by dead, white, cis-gendered males? He further demonstrates his Neanderthal status by assuming his readers will catch the playful reference to the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau (pot of message/mess of pottage). Most of today’s students will not.
Epstein goes on to describe what he sees as the value of a literary education:
“A literary education establishes a strong taste for the endless variousness of life; it teaches how astonishing reality is – and how obdurate to even the most ingenious attempts to grasp its mechanics or explain any serious portion of it… A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases, with nothing more stimulating than those cases that provide exceptions that prove no rule – the unique human personality, in other words. A literary education with its built-in skepticism about flimsy ideas and especially about large idea systems, is naturally against fanaticism. It provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforces the inestimable value of human liberty – liberty especially of the kind that leaves us free to pursue that reality from which we all live at a great distance and run the risk of dying without having known.”
A little high-flown, perhaps, but I’ll take it.
I would never recommend any young person become an English major today. Thankfully, my kids have other things in mind for themselves. Apart from a diploma, there’s nothing of value you can gain by studying literature in school that you can’t get on your own as a reader and lover of good books. In fact, I heard not long ago that the numbers of English majors are declining at colleges and universities around the country. Good. Let’s reconcile ourselves to the idea that the academic study of literature, such as it’s become, may go extinct. It deserves to. Happily, a literary education in Epstein’s sense of the term is still available to all, because literature is meant for amateurs.