We’ve been dumping Shakespeare, Milton, and Eliot in favor of the latest, trendy lesbian poet or controversial rapper. And then we wonder why fewer and fewer college students are majoring in English. What can be done to renew and revive our English departments in this age of political correctness?

Q. What’s the difference between a park bench and an English major?

A. The park bench can support a family of four.

Despite the jokes, English majors, like all those who study the liberal arts, can indeed get jobs. I majored not only in English but in another joke-provoking major, philosophy, and I am supporting a family of nine. And though I liked philosophy a good bit, my heart was always with the English department. It was in that department that I read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley; Newman, Dostoevsky, Dickinson, Faulkner, Melville, Hemingway, Ellison, Richard Wright, D.H. Lawrence, and so many others. I have never regretted my English major for one minute.

Nevertheless, when I decided to pursue graduate study a couple years after my undergraduate degree, I decided against English and for theology. Part of the decision was based on my own religious changes (I had become a Catholic), but part of it was based on my sense that finding a sane English graduate program was, if anything, even more difficult than finding a sane theology program. Although my undergraduate program had me reading the great authors listed above, my English adviser, who had given up on most of the main English lit scholarly guilds, starting with the Modern Language Association, echoed my view that there would be few programs where a believing Christian would be able to look at literature with the eyes of faith—or even sane eyes. English departments were not much interested in the great authors. When they were, it was largely to place them in the dock to be tried for heresy against the trinity of race, sex, and class.

The secularized political religion of academic English has changed somewhat. Class is largely out, though Marxist and Marxist-derived political visions still permeate the field. Race is stronger than ever. Sex has given way to the ever-shifting cult of an interiorly-determined and criterion-less “gender” and the varieties of sexual desires that serve to give people an identity in these strange times. But the interest in the “canon” of English or world literature is still largely an opposition.

Some small number of radical students still thrills to the ideas of their professors about sticking it to the Man, or even the Bard. In 2016 University of Pennsylvania students replaced a picture of Shakespeare in the department with a picture of the black lesbian poet Audre Lorde under the Orwellian reasoning that it was a way of “affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department.”[1] Many students, however, have not raised their fists, but instead have decided that an English major without the Bard is for the birds. Two-thirds (66.3%) of English departments responding to a 2018 survey done by the Association of Departments of English reported drops (large or small) in the number of majors, while only 8.7% reported small increases. Nobody reported large increases.[2]

You won’t hear much about such numbers, however, in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s collection of essays published as “Endgame: Can literary studies survive?”[3] To hear it from the collection of professors and wannabe professors kvetching about the future of English departments here, the real problems for English departments include: evil Republican state legislatures who have cut funding to state universities, university administrators who have dumped them in favor of STEM subjects and more administrative bloat, and the vaguely defined problems of “market structures” and capitalism in the universities.

Some of these have some truth to them. Republican legislators have rightly grown tired of funding institutions that seem to be indoctrination centers for anti-Christian, anti-conservative, and anti-Republican professors on the public’s dime. There is definite administrative bloat in universities public and private. There is a bias in favor of STEM subjects that is sometimes connected to corporate funding of universities as research centers. Yes, market considerations do fit into the reasoning of universities.

But these subjects are only touched upon in brief. What is left out of this sixty-page collection of laments is any account of: a) American demographic challenges which leave us on the brink of a shrinking base of students, b) the rise of mass higher education funded by federal programs, especially the federal student loan program, c) the way in which access to federally backed student loan money drove university spending sprees (including all those administrative positions), and d) the large-scale student debt that has inhibited family formation (exacerbating the demographic problem) and caused more parents to hesitate in sending their children on for four-year degrees.

Beyond these unaddressed big-picture topics are more pointed questions left unasked such as: why is it that English departments, which have very low overhead and thus make more money off students than do science courses with their expensive labs and materials, are so often on the chopping block? To do so would, I believe, lead the authors back to uncomfortable and unmentioned topics such as the drop in English majors. To ask those questions might lead back to even more uncomfortable questions about the nature of the professoriate and the nature of the courses that are being offered these days. To read the essays of the “Endgame” collection is to enter into a world where nobody takes religion of any sort as a matter of truth, nobody is politically conservative, and almost nobody is willing to defend any canon of literature directly.

I say “almost” because there are two exceptions of sorts. Simon During of the University of Melbourne writes about the interesting parallel between what happened to religion and what is happening to the humanities. He gingerly pushes back on the notion that what we used to think of as the canon is simply the product of “white, male, heterosexist, Eurocentric, colonizing elites” and thus inherently tainted. But his defense is of the sort that leaves one wondering why bother. They offer, he says, ways to “enjoy the cultural heritage and connect us with the past”; “offer a space for free contemplation and reflection”; and “push back on the capitalist apparatuses that are dismantling them.” So far so banal. How do they do this work, however, if “They possess no essence, no specific doctrines, and no ethical principles”?

For Dr. During, the humanities wind up being another sentimental collection of artworks that allow those studying them to develop skills such as “thinking logically (and dialectically)” that even he admits “are not confined to the humanities.” It’s no wonder that he closes his essay with the left-wing anti-capitalist stuff. This may be wrong, but at least it has some content.

The other essayist who most strongly defends the study of literature is Michael Clune of Case Western Reserve University. The difficulty with Dr. Clune’s two essays are that his defense of actually teaching students to make judgments about literature by making judgments about them himself is marred by his argument that his judgment is backed up by “the consensus of the community of experts.” This is a rather odd claim, given that it’s the “experts” who have so often been dumping Shakespeare and George Eliot, whom he seems to think worthy subjects of study. It’s also “experts” such as Dr. Clune who mention the rapper Biggie Smalls in the same category as the authors of Hamlet and Middlemarch or asks us to consider Marx’s understanding of equality to repair the academic grove. Against the idea that all of literature is simply a matter of taste, Dr. Clune’s defense of judgments in art and literature gladden my heart. The problem is his own performance doesn’t lead me to have much confidence in his judgments.

So too with University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor Lisa Schoenbach’s essay which purports to explain why we need to “save” the public university. For Dr. Schoenbach public universities are the “protectors of academic freedom and free inquiry.” Alas, there is very little academic freedom in the world of higher education and it is not clear that there are many English professors defending it. (She doesn’t identify any contemporary defenses of it in her essay.) Too many of them have eschewed the kind of critical aesthetic judgments that Dr. Clune desires, while rigidly adhering to judgments of the authors, societies, and characters of the past on the basis of today’s dogmatic political concerns.

This should not be surprising. Given the abstract and procedural defenses of their subject, it’s not clear to me why anybody would want to study something so vague. The professors have rejected the religious, political, and social ideals that provide the context and the understanding for great works of literature. Nobody lives by “critical thinking” alone, so it is natural that English professors have embraced various forms of secularized political religion. The result, however, is that their interpretations and judgments clash with the books and authors they engage, and they cannot give a coherent account of the unity of knowledge or of literature’s place in it. No wonder they fail to convince many people to study with them. “Endgame” is the right title because there is no hope in this collection. To find hope, we might have to think more creatively.

My friend John Zmirak, himself a Ph.D. in English and former college professor, told me several years ago that he had a plan to save literary studies. When I asked what it was, he said that universities should be banned from teaching literature and perhaps even from allowing it on campus. Given the rebellious nature of youth, and free from the English professors’ assignments of totalitarian thinkers and rappers, the students might suspect there are doctrines and ethical principles imaginatively brought to life in the forbidden texts. They might start smuggling in Shakespeare, Dickinson, Dostoevsky, and the rest of the great cloud of literary witnesses—just as Russian dissidents passed around Samizdat copies of Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet era.

Still, to be safe, I’d recommend the students pretend to be reading Marx and Biggie Smalls.

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[1] Olivia Sylvester, “Students remove Shakespeare portrait in English dept., aiming for inclusivity,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, December 12, 2016.

[2] Modern Language Association, “A Changing Major: The Report of the 2016-17 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major,” The Association of Departments of English, July 2018.

[3] “Endgame: Can literary studies survive?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2020.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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