Jump to content

English Majors Evaporating


Recommended Posts

How many English profs would you say are "Marxist"?

I appreciate you putting Marxist in quotes because Epstein's use of the word misunderstands how critical theorists use it. If you're asking how many English professors (or at least those who earned their Ph.D. in the past 25 years) agree that contemporary applications of Marxism are useful tools for understanding how multinational capital works, I'd put the number somewhere between "many" and "most." If you're asking how many are card-carrying Communists or active proselytes for socialism, I'd say somewhere between "few" and "none."

But that question runs parallel to the more pressing concern, at least in undergraduate studies: How has the language of critical theory affected the pleasures of reading? Because it has. Negatively. Most definitely. But a degree in English isn't about furthering the pleasures of reading, is it? It's as close as we now come to a classical liberal education, the kind of "Great Books" training that was the norm for centuries and that is intended, primarily, to foster deep thinking, logic, curiosity, and communication. So I can complain, genuinely, about the jargon of high theory while also being grateful for that training, because I'm most definitely a better thinker (and citizen) for it.

Edited by Darren H
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 59
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

How many English profs would you say are "Marxist"?

I appreciate you putting Marxist in quotes because Epstein's use of the word misunderstands how critical theorists use it. If you're asking how many English professors (or at least those who earned their Ph.D. in the past 25 years) agree that contemporary applications of Marxism are useful tools for understanding how multinational capital works, I'd put the number somewhere between "many" and "most." If you're asking how many are card-carrying Communists or active proselytes for socialism, I'd say somewhere between "few" and "none."

But that question runs parallel to the more pressing concern, at least in undergraduate studies: How has the language of critical theory affected the pleasures of reading? Because it has. Negatively. Most definitely. But a degree in English isn't about furthering the pleasures of reading, is it? It's as close as we now come to a classical liberal education, the kind of "Great Books" training that was the norm for centuries and that is intended, primarily, to foster deep thinking, logic, curiosity, and communication. So I can complain, genuinely, about the jargon of high theory while also being grateful for that training, because I'm most definitely a better thinker (and citizen) for it.

Nailed it on both points.

Why would a person need a degree to further the pleasures of reading? I probably read more pleasurably in between my MA and PhD, when I wasn't noting up my margins and cross-referencing. But as to the purposes of an English degree, your answer is close to what I would lay out as a defense.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
Letterboxd.

Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Just wanted to chime in and say: Everything said in this thread about English Departments can be said about your average Religious Studies department. Up to and including "Marxism."

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi friends. Great thread.

Sorry we took so long to respond. I think I fixed the original English Majors Evaporating? thread. Can y'all see it? The first post starts with Christian saying "Rod Dreher links to a long column I haven't read in full, and wonders what's to become of English majors. He excerpts the thoughts of William Chase:..."

If it seems ok I will merge the two threads.

I can see it now. What was wrong with it? Feel free to merge away. Thanks.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Another PhD student chiming in here, and seconding the cheers for Darren's assessment. I have just started my third year of a PhD in language education. I often think there were two reasons for not continuing with English literature after my BA -- first, I didn't want to just do theory all the time, because I like books (by the way, if you want to find the people who actually just love books, look for the library sciences grad students), and second, I'd heard the horror stories about jobs. I admit that my future projection of myself as a "fun," "cool" professor is based on my idealized version of my English professors from college, but I'm going to have to shoot for being the wacky sociolinguist in the English department -- the one weirdo who represents the "language" part of "English language and literature."

One of the things that attracted me to applied linguistics was that while we have all the same preoccupations (though we arrived at them later) as the rest of the humanities and social sciences -- postmodern epistemology, identity, raceclassgender, etc -- I felt like those theories were being put to work on actual real-world problems instead of how I thought they were being applied in English departments, which I interpreted (uncharitably, I'm sure) as something like "Hey, has anybody done a (blank)ist reading of (blank) yet?"

Incidentally, the "great books" / liberal arts education was alive and well at the institution where I spent my BA years, which also happens to be the evangelically affiliated host institution of Image itself. In both English courses and the honors program, we just sort of lapped up tons of important texts. It was pretty great. I only took one course that was vaguely related to literary theory, which is fine by me, even though it led to an embarassing moment in my MA (in an English dept, though I did rhetoric & comp) when somebody said "wait, what did you do your BA in if you don't know what New Historicism is?" Then again, I was the only grad student in a room of twelve who could accurately identify iambic pentameter. Maybe that's beside the point.

I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't see anything terribly wrong with what the author of the article in question is decrying (perhaps someone would like to familiarize him with the concept of genre in the rhetorical sense, so that he might realize why those scholars are using words in ways he doesn't like), I do have what I'd like to believe is a healthy, if slightly naive, appreciation for saddling kids with a huge reading list and asking them to think real hard about it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Epstein -

"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."

This is my experience. I had more than one college "English" professor who, if I hadn't already developed a love for reading at a much younger age, would have turned me away from ever wanting to read another book ever again.

1) One viewpoint(which--cards on the table--I happen to favor) shrugs its shoulders and points out that there has never been a "pure" way of reading literature--that the New Critics, for all their protestations to the contrary, were just as guilty of porting-in race, class, and gender as race-studies, class-studies, and gender-studies. The difference is that the formalism of the approach disguised that fact; you can hardly be accused of ignoring class in Tristram Shandy or Byron if class doesn't appear in those works. But to say this buys into the idea that class assumptions aren't somehow part and parcel of those works even if such issues don't come up explicitly. And besides (I say), as long as you've got something interesting to say, why should it matter if you're reading the literature self-consciously through a framework of class, gender, or race? It's neither more nor less artificial than the New Critic's method.

Never a "pure" way of reading literature - you mean no one can ever read a good book simply to enjoy themselves and to nourish the soul? Aren't there plenty of classic authors who just don't give a damn about class or gender politics? You ask why it should matter how you read literature - the answer is enjoyment. The result is also poorer writing skill for the reader. A Christian who writes a novel as a means of advancing a particular worldview against other worldviews (to be acted out later in a movie by Kirk Cameron) is not writing a novel for the same reasons Charles Dickens or Mark Twain wrote novels. The result is shoddy literature.

2) The other viewpoint (espoused, as near as I can make out, by the professor with whom I discussed the article) is that this fragmenting of the field does present problems--namely, how does an English department describe what it does if it's branching out into fields of political or social studies? But there's a sense that you can't put toothpaste back in the tube, and whatever path English takes in the future will have to incorporate and make do with this new-found fragmentation.

Or, like any number of passing university trends and fads, we can leave it on the dust-heap of other failed educational experiments like Marxism.

Like NBooth, I found Epstein's grumpy old man schtick difficult to stomach, not so much for his denigration of "fully committed Marxists" (while not of the "fully committed" camp, I find much of value in Marx's critique of the way our society structures itself), but for the snobbery that wants to maintain the untenable definitions of "high" and "low" art as a bulwark against his own vested interests.

I still don't understand what defending the idea of "high" and "low" art or culture has to do with defending some sort of vested interests. For what it's worth, Gregory Wolfe defends the idea of "high" culture in his latest book, while still refusing to engage in the "declinism" that simply dismisses all modern culture.

More important than who, is the how. Epstein's conception of a top-down English dept. that sets the canon has no room for the controversial or the under-appreciated. It's not so much a matter of "anything goes," but rather if it is to "go," let them make their case and we will judge rather than dismissing them on charges of "low" art or "Marxism."

Can't you have a top-down English department that sets a canon but still leaves some room for the controversial or under-appreciated? I think the problem Epstein is worried about is a majority collection of English departments who don't care about the canon and now focus exclusively on the controversial and under-appreciated. Unfortunately, there is a very good reason why so many modern writers are under-appreciated. They write like ****. But maybe the idea of good and bad English prose is just the result of class assumptions.

... (and I do want to get people's feedback on the Sloukas piece, which I think is more vital than ever in these current economic woes) ...

I found it interesting that Sloukas talked as if the humanities advocates had been out-maneuvered by the science/technology/specialization advocates. But he then later found more fault with the humanities departments themselves, and their failure to hold the line -

"Look at us! Look at how we’ve let the fashion for economic utility intimidate us, how we simultaneously cringe and justify ourselves, how we secretly despise the philistines, who could never understand the relevance of our theoretical flea circus, even as we rush, in a paroxysm of class guilt, to offer classes in Introductory Sit-Com Writing, in Clown 500, in Seinfeld; classes in which “everyone is a winner.” Small wonder the sciences don’t respect us; we shouldn’t respect us. And what have we gained from all this? Alas, despite our eagerness to fit in, to play ball, we still don’t belong, we’re still ignored or infantilized. What we’ve earned is the prerogative of going out with a whimper. Marginalized, self-righteous, we just keep on keeping on, insulted that no one returns our calls, secretly expecting no less."

How many English profs would you say are "Marxist"?

I appreciate you putting Marxist in quotes because Epstein's use of the word misunderstands how critical theorists use it. If you're asking how many English professors (or at least those who earned their Ph.D. in the past 25 years) agree that contemporary applications of Marxism are useful tools for understanding how multinational capital works, I'd put the number somewhere between "many" and "most." If you're asking how many are card-carrying Communists or active proselytes for socialism, I'd say somewhere between "few" and "none."

Card-carrying Communists are out, but if one is teaching students that contemporary applications of Marxism help us understand how capital works, then one still is advancing ideas that are fundamentally Marxist and socialistic. Marx's ideas on how capital works contained a number of fundamentally false assumptions (as demonstrated by Carl Menger, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, and, well, history). The fact that so many Marxist sympathizers are now in the English Departments is ironic because Marx was not known for writing good prose. His ideas are scientific/mathematic/economic, not artistic.

But that question runs parallel to the more pressing concern, at least in undergraduate studies: How has the language of critical theory affected the pleasures of reading? Because it has. Negatively. Most definitely. But a degree in English isn't about furthering the pleasures of reading, is it? It's as close as we now come to a classical liberal education, the kind of "Great Books" training that was the norm for centuries and that is intended, primarily, to foster deep thinking, logic, curiosity, and communication. So I can complain, genuinely, about the jargon of high theory while also being grateful for that training, because I'm most definitely a better thinker (and citizen) for it.

So furthering the pleasures of reading does not equal a classical liberal arts education?

One of the things that attracted me to applied linguistics was that while we have all the same preoccupations (though we arrived at them later) as the rest of the humanities and social sciences -- postmodern epistemology, identity, raceclassgender, etc -- I felt like those theories were being put to work on actual real-world problems instead of how I thought they were being applied in English departments, which I interpreted (uncharitably, I'm sure) as something like "Hey, has anybody done a (blank)ist reading of (blank) yet?"

I wouldn't say that was an uncharitable interpretation.

I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't see anything terribly wrong with what the author of the article in question is decrying (perhaps someone would like to familiarize him with the concept of genre in the rhetorical sense, so that he might realize why those scholars are using words in ways he doesn't like), I do have what I'd like to believe is a healthy, if slightly naive, appreciation for saddling kids with a huge reading list and asking them to think real hard about it.

Genre in the rhetorical sense??? You mean, like in modern day politics? For example, Sarah Palin indulges in her own rhetorical genre, but that doesn't mean her book is worth reading ... let alone worth reading in English Literature class.

Edited by Persiflage
Link to comment
Share on other sites

1) One viewpoint(which--cards on the table--I happen to favor) shrugs its shoulders and points out that there has never been a "pure" way of reading literature--that the New Critics, for all their protestations to the contrary, were just as guilty of porting-in race, class, and gender as race-studies, class-studies, and gender-studies. The difference is that the formalism of the approach disguised that fact; you can hardly be accused of ignoring class in Tristram Shandy or Byron if class doesn't appear in those works. But to say this buys into the idea that class assumptions aren't somehow part and parcel of those works even if such issues don't come up explicitly. And besides (I say), as long as you've got something interesting to say, why should it matter if you're reading the literature self-consciously through a framework of class, gender, or race? It's neither more nor less artificial than the New Critic's method.

Never a "pure" way of reading literature - you mean no one can ever read a good book simply to enjoy themselves and to nourish the soul? Aren't there plenty of classic authors who just don't give a damn about class or gender politics? You ask why it should matter how you read literature - the answer is enjoyment. The result is also poorer writing skill for the reader. A Christian who writes a novel as a means of advancing a particular worldview against other worldviews (to be acted out later in a movie by Kirk Cameron) is not writing a novel for the same reasons Charles Dickens or Mark Twain wrote novels. The result is shoddy literature.

As has been pointed out, the study of literature is different from reading "for enjoyment." You can read for enjoyment all you like without considering the gender politics of the Bronte sisters, but you're not reading critically in that case--and critical reading is exactly what I (and, I assume, the author of the article) has in mind. (I would go so far as to say that if all you want to do is read for enjoyment, without all that messy critical work, you had best not become an English major at all. That's like becoming a Philosophy major because you like to gas about big topics with your friends late at night over a bottle of brew. Take biology and read in your spare time).

As Eagleton points out, even the New Critics with their supposed impartiality toward the "text" carted in cultural-political assumptions (involving the nature of a "text," the proper role of criticism i/r/t society, etc). The article in question assumes you can engage in critical practice without ideological baggage--and in this, he's frankly wrong.

This was my point: not that literature cannot be nourishing (though how that's defined is a vexed question) but that the field itself has always been studied from an ideological perspective anyway, and the letting-in of more self-consciously ideological voices doesn't really make much difference one way or another. It might even make things more interesting. And as long as it's interesting, I couldn't give a tinker's denarius if the reading is New Critical or Feminist or Marxist or LBGTQ or any other critical framework you want to put on it. What matters is how useful it is for critically discussing a work.

BTW, if you think Dickens didn't have an agenda, you've not read Oliver Twist. Or Nicholas Nickleby. Or Bleak House. The man was an agenda-machine. Loads of classic authors, from Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Ralph Ellison are advancing particular world-views; to say that this isn't so strikes me as misguided at best. Whether or not a work is polemical has nothing to do with what makes it "good" (for whatever value of "good" you want to plug in there).

2) The other viewpoint (espoused, as near as I can make out, by the professor with whom I discussed the article) is that this fragmenting of the field does present problems--namely, how does an English department describe what it does if it's branching out into fields of political or social studies? But there's a sense that you can't put toothpaste back in the tube, and whatever path English takes in the future will have to incorporate and make do with this new-found fragmentation.

Or, like any number of passing university trends and fads, we can leave it on the dust-heap of other failed educational experiments like Marxism.

As I say, the understanding seems to be that once the genie is out of the bottle, it's not going back in. The truth is, New Criticism itself represents an anomaly in English studies, which began as a rhetorical practice with linguistic interests--literature only entered into the thing secondarily. NC dominated the field for about forty or fifty years before post-critical thought moved in, but it was hardly the only game in town even in its heyday--a heyday which occupied, remember, a short part of the already-short history of academic literary study. Its passing was hardly the end of the Traditional Way of Study; if anything, it represents a trend or fad that has been relegated to the dust-heap: the idea that the "text" exists independently of both author and reader and that certain "texts" form an immutable and unchanging Canon.

Like NBooth, I found Epstein's grumpy old man schtick difficult to stomach, not so much for his denigration of "fully committed Marxists" (while not of the "fully committed" camp, I find much of value in Marx's critique of the way our society structures itself), but for the snobbery that wants to maintain the untenable definitions of "high" and "low" art as a bulwark against his own vested interests.

I still don't understand what defending the idea of "high" and "low" art or culture has to do with defending some sort of vested interests. For what it's worth, Gregory Wolfe defends the idea of "high" culture in his latest book, while still refusing to engage in the "declinism" that simply dismisses all modern culture.

I've not read Wolfe's book, but in Epstein's case he's definitely got vested interests. He wants to uphold the (Dead White Male) Canon against all these Marxists and Feminists and what-have-yous that have (in his view) brought the study to its sorry state. Notice that he traces the decline to the admission of living authors.

EDIT: Since we have many people in this thread who either have earned or are further along in earning advanced degrees in English than I, if any of this is generally agreed to be incorrect I will defer to them. But I'm pretty sure, based on my reading of Eagleton, of Stephen Booth and Catherine Gallagher and M.H. Abrams, that my argument i/r/t the history of criticism et al is essentially sound.

Edited by NBooth
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't see anything terribly wrong with what the author of the article in question is decrying (perhaps someone would like to familiarize him with the concept of genre in the rhetorical sense, so that he might realize why those scholars are using words in ways he doesn't like), I do have what I'd like to believe is a healthy, if slightly naive, appreciation for saddling kids with a huge reading list and asking them to think real hard about it.

Genre in the rhetorical sense??? You mean, like in modern day politics? For example, Sarah Palin indulges in her own rhetorical genre, but that doesn't mean her book is worth reading ... let alone worth reading in English Literature class.

No, that's not what I mean. Maybe I should have said genre in the linguistic sense -- as in a way of using language that is peculiar to a particular group of people or a particular context, and understanding those conventions. I think I was responding to a concern from Epstein that was only tangential to his main point, which was English scholars using words in ways he didn't like them being used.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...

Warning: Rant Ahead

Epstein's at it again.

At the University of Chicago I read many books, none of them trivial, for the school in those years did not allow the work of second- or third-rate writers into its curriculum. Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, or their equivalents of that day, did not come close to making the cut. No textbooks were used. You didn’t read “Karl Marx postulated .  .  .”; you read Karl-bloody-Marx. The working assumption was that one’s time in college is limited, and mustn’t be spent on anything other than the first-rate, or on learning acquired (as with textbooks) at a second remove.

Nor did Chicago offer any “soft” majors or “lite” courses. I remember, in my final year, looking for such a course to fill out a crowded schedule, and choosing one called History of Greek Philosophy. How difficult, I thought, could this be? Learn a few concepts of the pre-Socratics (Thales believed this, Heraclitus that), acquire a few dates, and that would be that. On the first day of class, the teacher, a trim little man named Warner Arms Wick, announced that there was no substantial history of Greek philosophy, so we shall instead be spending the quarter reading Aristotle and Plato exclusively.

Etc. While reading it, I thought it sounded awfully familiar; I had forgotten that he pulled this same schtick last year. I was going to pretend objectivity when I posted the link, but since I already critiqued this same dreary stuff in this very thread, I'll be honest and say that I'm much more on the side of Katie Billotte (warning: political content. Though I don't think you have to subscribe to her politics to see the truth here):

When creating citizens, both for the nation and for the world, it is still through the liberal arts that you get the most bang for your buck. Nothing evidences this more than the expansion of the humanities over the past half-century, the very expansion Epstein and others attack. African-American Studies, postcolonial criticism and queer theory provide students with the tools they need to live and work competently and comfortably in an ever more diverse world. Most important, they help them to be citizens of that world. The ability of the humanities to expand and adapt is one of its assets. My 19th century Classicist forebears reacted with horror to the introduction of English as an academic subject, horror similar to what Ethnic Studies Departments often encounter today. Ultimately, however, the inclusion of the vernacular language helped to keep the liberal arts relevant and to fulfil their purpose of educating future citizens.

Exactly. Epstein's oh-so-serious gripes about opening up the academy to Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, et al are really objections that the academy is doing what it claims to do--that is, it is encouraging close and multi-faceted inspection of the world around us. To someone who wants "a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement" (rather than, say, promoting actual intellectual achievement), the "opening up" of the academy beyond the Western Canon is a threat. For Epstein, "true intellectual achievement" is only found insofar as you align yourself with the verities of the Dead White Male Western Canon; once you give your pinch of incense to Homer, he doesn't care what you do, but give your pinch you will--no shirking and offering a bit of it to Ethnic Studies (because ES is bad, see. Why? He doesn't say, leaving the overwhelming impression that it's because it's Ethnic Studies. Perhaps he thinks the Liberal Arts are dying because those Ethnic Studies brought down the real estate value). Make no mistake: this blowing-down of the walls terrifies Epstein. You can see it in the way he froths:

Soon, the guys in the next room, in their hunger for relevance and their penchant for self-indulgence, began teaching books for reasons external to their intrinsic beauty or importance, and attempted to explain history before discovering what actually happened. They politicized psychology and sociology, and allowed African-American studies an even higher standing than Greek and Roman classics. They decided that the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture. They put popular culture on the same intellectual footing as high culture (Conrad or graphic novels, three hours credit either way). And, finally, they determined that race, gender, and social class were at the heart of all humanities and most social science subjects. With that finishing touch, the game was up for the liberal arts.

Because, golly, there's no way that African Americans can have anything as valuable to say as the Greeks or the Romans, or that pop culture might be just as revealing as high culture (or that the high culture of today--like Homer--might have been the pop culture of the past). Epstein simply doesn't see what Thoreau knew a hundred years ago: that Zeno and Thoreau and everyone else stands on exactly the same footing. Of course, perhaps he does see it. Either way, this misty-eyed adoration of the dead "Canon" is a subtle way of telling all those African American scholars (the ones asking, for instance, why almost no black voices are heard in the Canon), all those women (who wonder why so few women are represented), all those other people, to just shut up and take it.

Sigh. Deep breath. Epstein really sours my milk. If the willingness and the ability to look into anything--anything--and ask it what it can tell us, the willingness to question established Canons, to expose their inner workings and the ways in which they systematically exclude other voices--in short, if this whole business of the academy isn't to explore, but instead rests on venerating the same idols year after unchanging year--well, then. I don't want any part of it. If Epstein's vision of the Liberal Arts is the correct one, then it needs to be killed. Strike that--it needs to be buried. It's so motionless that I can only assume it's already dead. But it didn't take "Ethnic Studies" to do it. Epstein and his ilk did it all on their own. They prefer it that way.

/End rant

EDIT: The tl;dr version is that Epstein says that letting Ethnic Studies et al into the academy has caused the death of liberal arts. I say (in stronger language than I did last year): baloney.

Edited by NBooth
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

An amusing Tumblr: MLA Jobs.

Diablo Valley College is hiring an assistant professor of literature, specialization open. You pay us to take this job. Perfect for recent PhDs who have been on the market for 2-3 years.

...

Notre Dame University is hiring an Assistant Professor of Medieval Studies. Fluency is required in at least seven of the following: Middle High German, Old Dutch, Old Norse, Middle Welsh, Cornish, Galician, Catalan, Occitan, Provençal, Anglo-Saxon, Old French, Frisian, and Gothick. Secondary specialties in Jutish or Pictish love poetry and steampunk fiction highly desirable. Teaching duties will be 4/4, seven of which are Beginning Latin for theology students.

....

Indiana University is seeking a specialist in composition and rhetoric to run the First-Year Writing program, teach classes, coordinate with university assessment and general education offices, serve on all relevant committees, work with the Writing Center, and oversee hiring, training, and professional development of non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty. Productive research agenda also required. A 0/1 course release will be provided.

I had to read through around 5 of them before I was sure they were made up.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
Twitter Blog

Link to comment
Share on other sites

And now the 'blog US Intellectual History questions the particulars of Billotte's assertions:

There are elements of truth in Billotte’s argument. For example, higher education is more expensive, and the liberal arts are underfunded, in part because of an environment of austerity that conservatives have done much to foster. But the good parts of Billotte’s article are lost in a haze of reductionism.

For instance, the post points out that a lot of the cutting done to liberal arts is, in fact, the responsibility of college administrators--many of whom, surely, are not the target of Billote's ire.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Because, golly, there's no way that African Americans can have anything as valuable to say as the Greeks or the Romans, or that pop culture might be just as revealing as high culture (or that the high culture of today--like Homer--might have been the pop culture of the past). Epstein simply doesn't see what Thoreau knew a hundred years ago: that Zeno and Thoreau and everyone else stands on exactly the same footing. Of course, perhaps he does see it. Either way, this misty-eyed adoration of the dead "Canon" is a subtle way of telling all those African American scholars (the ones asking, for instance, why almost no black voices are heard in the Canon), all those women (who wonder why so few women are represented), all those other people, to just shut up and take it.

Sigh. Deep breath. Epstein really sours my milk. If the willingness and the ability to look into anything--anything--and ask it what it can tell us, the willingness to question established Canons, to expose their inner workings and the ways in which they systematically exclude other voices--in short, if this whole business of the academy isn't to explore, but instead rests on venerating the same idols year after unchanging year--well, then. I don't want any part of it. If Epstein's vision of the Liberal Arts is the correct one, then it needs to be killed. Strike that--it needs to be buried. It's so motionless that I can only assume it's already dead. But it didn't take "Ethnic Studies" to do it. Epstein and his ilk did it all on their own. They prefer it that way.

/End rant

EDIT: The tl;dr version is that Epstein says that letting Ethnic Studies et al into the academy has caused the death of liberal arts. I say (in stronger language than I did last year): baloney.

I finally read Epstein's long article and, after your comments, was expecting it to be a critique of allowing ethnic studies into the universities. Instead it seems to be a promotion of the ideas in Andrew Delbanco's book, which seems to be making a serious argument that universities have lost, or are losing, something valuable. It looks like it's worth reading. Epstein gives the idea of "ethnic" and other studies, what, 2 paragraphs out of 60?

In fact, it appears that nowhere in that article does Epstein ever say that letting ethnic studies into the academy has cause the death of the liberal arts. Instead, he's objecting to a philosophy of education that is increasingly specialized and increasingly politicized. He's making a much broader philosophical argument of which considers ethnic studies as only a single part of the problem. I think you'd get much closer to his general philosophic argument with paragraphs like this one:

The idea behind the curriculum at the College of the University of Chicago was the Arnoldian one, abbreviated to undergraduate years, of introducing students to the best that was thought and said in the Western world. Mastery wasn’t in the picture. At least, I never felt that I had mastered any subject, or even book, in any of my courses there. What the school did give me was the confidence that I could read serious books, and with it the assurance that I needed to return to them, in some cases over and over, to claim anything like a genuine understanding of them.

That fits in quite nicely with Dorothy Sayers' The Lost Tools of Learning. Do not be hasty to immediately assume that when someone objects to something like ethnic studies it is racial or based upon bigotry. There is a view, perhaps an older and less popular view, that looked at education as teaching students the skills they needed to think and introducing them to the permanent things or universals of man that can be found in arts & literature, and that inspire and shape the soul. This view objects to ideologically based ethnic studies (reading works because of the ethnicity of those works) on the same grounds that it objects to specialized professional studies (studying one subject divorced from its relation to any other subject, which, by the way, is also economically ideologically based). Arnoldian education rejected the ideological view of culture (which is how we now most often use the word), but that didn't mean educators ignored or didn't study other societies and civilizations. This is the view that, sometimes, other civilized orders in the world can get some universals right that we haven't. Some of the greatest literary works on history were written and compiled by thinkers of this older view.

The argument is that when you discard reading works of literature for their value (and these works arise from different time periods and cultures across the world), but instead read or teach them for political and ideological reasons, you lose something important. This goes back to what Dorothy Sayers argued, as well as to what Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot argued. Classical liberal arts education was based upon the idea that there were permanent values (and that cultures could be judged by their interaction with these permanent values). The idea of the Western Canon is merely based upon the idea that there are, as a result, great works that no educated person should ignore or avoid. When you discard value of the permanent things and instead teach or study the "liberal arts" in order to find meta theory, power constructs, paradigms and hidden oppressors or oppressed classes, you are teaching everything through the lens of ideology, and I think it is this view that Epstein argues is destructive to liberal arts education.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Oh, I know the reasoning behind Epstein's nonsense. But the fact remains--he traces the "decline of the liberal arts" to the moment we let them uppity women and ethnics start thinking they might have something as worthwhile to say as the Greeks. He says this in the passage I quoted. He's a DWM snob.

When you discard value of the permanent things and instead teach or study the "liberal arts" in order to find meta theory, power constructs, paradigms and hidden oppressors or oppressed classes, you are teaching everything through the lens of ideology, and I think it is this view that Epstein argues is destructive to liberal arts education.

And this is why I think Epstein is full of it. I know what he says he's saying, but it's what he's not saying that bothers me here. Don't be to quick to assume that "the idea of the Western Canon" is not itself ideological. It is--deeply. It depends, for one thing, on the assumption that most of the people who had anything worth saying throughout history just happened to be men, and just happened to be white. Which is balderdash. Teaching students to actually think critically about what they're told, rather than genuflect to the "Great Works," isn't "teaching everything through the lens of ideology"--it's teaching them to think for themselves. Which is, last I checked, the goal of education.Students shouldn't just assume that Plato has something worth listening to because he's Plato. And they should certainly not assume that Plato has more insight than, say, Freud or Marx or Plantinga (to reference another thread)--or bell hooks or Julia Kristeva or Frederick Douglass or James Baldwin. The truth is--Plato's a dead guy who said some important and influential things. Students should probably know him. But what this so-called "ideological approach" does is throw open the door for other voices--minority voices, women's voices. And this sends Epstein up a tree--as is evident in the passage I quote.

As to jumping to conclusions...a man dates the decline of the LA to the moment African American studies gets as much status as Greek studies. The first question is--why did he pick AA studies? Just a random choice? I doubt it; he evidently thinks it's a perfect example because it's self evidently silly to think that AA studies could possibly be as important as Greek studies. Now, what conclusion, I ask, should one draw from someone who chooses African American culture vs [Dead, white, male] Greek culture as a matched opposition? Cultural chauvinism is the kindest descriptor, here.

Edited by NBooth
Link to comment
Share on other sites

One point more--I know some of these scholars working in the areas derided in the article. And trust me, they're not ideological pinkos looking to tear down the fabric of civilization. Nor are they in it for the popularity. They are honestly interested in the questions raised by, say, the African American experience, and they're doing great work in that area. To say that their area of interest is "less important" because it doesn't deal with the "Western Canon" strikes me as folly. To say it's more "ideological" than Epstein's view is no less problematic; it only gets labeled "ideological" or "political" because it dares to challenge the accepted norms. It should be evident that when Epstein talks of "politicizing" psychology and sociology, all he means is that people in these disciplines started to question political assumptions that he finds convenient [btw, here's a link to our thread on ideology]. The truth is, his lionization of certain ways of doing things is no less political.

[Full confession: I'm one of the scholars working--or, at this point, hoping to work--in a field Epstein derides--namely, I'm interested in 20th Century genre fiction. So I have a vested interest in discrediting him; he's mocking a field of study that I dearly love and in which I enjoy working.]

EDIT: Meanwhile, Helen Rittelmeyer--talking about something else entirely--suggests that the trends Epstein bemoans aren't long for this world anyway:

The Yale English department is a good example. In the directory for tenured and tenure-track faculty, “Marxist literary theory” is listed by five professors among their fields of interest, “gender and sexuality” by nine, and “colonial and postcolonial” by 11, or a quarter of the 44 professors. In the graduate student directory, however, the numbers for those subjects are one, three, and a fat goose egg. That’s quite a statistical drop-off, considering that grad students outnumber professors nearly two to one. The topics favored instead by these future scholars are Romanticism (six), Victorian literature (five), Milton (seven), and, oddly enough, religious literature (also seven). Honorable mentions include “Biblical exegesis,” “conversion narratives,” and “Middle English devotional, visionary, and anchoritic writing”— they’re not just reading the Bible, they’re reading monks.

The next generation of college professors seems to have returned to the proper business of contemplating the best that has been thought and said in the world (admittedly with some progressive politics thrown in).

Of course, this may speak more to the fact that now "gender and sexuality" (for instance) function as a standard part of the literary diet; you discuss them as a matter of course, not as a specialized area. From my perspective, anyway.

Edited by NBooth
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...

Sam Rocha in First Things:

These men left me more suited than ever to mount an argument against the patriarchy of Western metaphysics within its institution par excellence, the modern university. And for much bigger and more serious reasons than demographics. We cannot experience folklore, real life, the flux of the commons, by importing the folkloric into this institutional space, like a museum or mausoleum, nor by walking out the front door. The only way to find it is like Alexandre Dumas’ mad priest in The Count of Monte Cristo: digging and scratching one’s way through the Western canon with passionate fidelity. This is the dogged spirit of Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man.

R.R. Reno published a review in First Things some time back that greatly influenced me entitled “Theology After the Revolution.” The gist was that today’s critical theologians, unlike practitioners of the nouvelle theologie, had lost their footing in the object of their own critique. In class I often draw a comparison between serious, intentional disobedience and accidental disobeying; an “I reject you” and an “Oops!” If one is serious about being critical, in the tradition of (post-)Enlightenment critique, then one cannot dissent clumsily or by accident. One must understand the object of one’s departure as much as possible. You’ve got to do your homework. Period.

Edited by Rushmore
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...

Epstein's has another fan in Roger Ebert:

In an article in The Weekly Standard by Joseph P. Epstein asks, "Who Killed the Liberal Arts?" Not long after on Salon.com, Katie Billotte responded, "Conservatives killed the liberal arts" and blurbed: "Destroying the humanities--and the notion of informed citizenship--is part of the conservative agenda."

There are many suspects, but I'm not sure they are political ideologies. If I had to thumb a suspect, it would be the career orientation of many students entering college. They want careers with prestige, income, futures. They know English majors don't exude a sexy aura in singles bars. You walk in out of the 1960s, leather arm-patches on the elbows of your corduroy sport jacket and a copy of The Best American Short Stories of 1972 in your pocket, and you lose.

"In a loose definition," Epstein writes in his excellent article, "the 'liberal arts' denote college study anchored in preponderantly Western literature, philosophy, and history, with science, mathematics, and foreign languages playing a substantial, though less central, role; in more recent times, the social science subjects--psychology, sociology, political science--have also sometimes been included. The liberal arts have always been distinguished from more specialized, usually vocational training. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, in this view, he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past, which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present."

The words that spring out to me are "vocational training." Do many students enter college these days hoping to become English lit teachers?

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

This article is too full of information to be effectively excerpted. Read the whole thing.

Common core sparks war over words

I guess I need to give you some flavor or what the article's about, so here's one paragraph. But that's it:

The Common Core State Standards in English, which have been adopted in 46 states and the District, call for public schools to ramp up nonfiction so that by 12th grade students will be reading mostly “informational text” instead of fictional literature. But as teachers excise poetry and classic works of fiction from their classrooms, those who designed the guidelines say it appears that educators have misunderstood them.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Very interesting. A couple of thoughts:

[1] The standards actually say that the nonfiction has to be spread across the disciplines; English teachers believe that the upswing of this will be that English will bear the burden of teaching nonfiction, primarily because other disciplines will say "We have our own stuff to handle." Am I reading that right? It makes sense, from what I've observed of the internal debates around my particular college campus, but I really don't understand why that should be the case. I mean, why can't a History teacher assignThe Wilsonian Moment or Confederates in the Attic? Or just require the kids to read an extra couple of books and produce reports on them? Even mathematics probably have some books that the students could read.... I'm just not sure why the automatic response of a History teacher would be to look at the English teacher and say "Ok, here. You take this. I'll teach history."

[2] Literature =/= Fiction. And vice-versa. [This feels like an obvious point to make, but since it doesn't seem to be made in the article--unless I missed it--it's worth making here] Again, I get the concern that a focus on nonfiction will lead to abandoning Moby-Dick, and in practice such an eventuality may well result. But Democracy in America can be read as literature, no? And Varieties of Religious Experience, Civilization and its Discontents, Walden, any version of Frederick Douglass's Narrative, Of Plymouth Plantation.... So it's not like abandoning fiction means abandoning rich, challenging literature. To be honest, if it came down to having a High School class read either Johnny Tremain (which is really a pretty good book) or Common Sense, it's pretty easy to see which would be the most challenging, complex, etc etc etc.

Edited by NBooth
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...
I've not read Wolfe's book, but in Epstein's case he's definitely got vested interests. He wants to uphold the (Dead White Male) Canon against all these Marxists and Feminists and what-have-yous that have (in his view) brought the study to its sorry state. Notice that he traces the decline to the admission of living authors.

 

 

Only slightly off-topic, but I think it has bearing. Here's Epstein lamenting the decline of the Great American WASP.

 

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren't, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today's new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided.

Meritocracy is leadership thought to be based on men and women who have earned their way not through the privileges of birth but by merit. La carrière ouverte aux les talents:Careers open to the talented, is what Napoleon Bonaparte promised, and it is what any meritocratic system is supposed to provide.

[snip]

A financier I know who grew up under the WASP standard not long ago told me that he thought that the subprime real estate collapse and the continuing hedge-fund scandals have been brought on directly by men and women who are little more than "greedy pigs" (his words) without a shred of character or concern for their clients or country. Naturally, he added, they all have master's degrees from the putatively best business schools in the nation.

Thus far in their history, meritocrats, those earnest good students, appear to be about little more than getting on, getting ahead and (above all) getting their own. The WASP leadership, for all that may be said in criticism of it, was better than that.

 

 

--a sentiment that deserves a hearty pfui. Which I will now give: pfui. But I think Epstein's comments throw an instructive light on his general sentiments w/r/t literature.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

Alex Rosenberg:

 

 the problems of the humanities are self-inflicted wounds well recognized by their colleagues in other faculties.

 

 

These wounds are:

1. Seeing canon-expansion as zero-sum-game.

2. Professors abandoning the effective teaching of undergrads to GTAs [i can't get too worked up about this, since it's paying for my education]

3. Trying to compete with science.

 

Notably, Rosenberg argues that there's one branch of the Humanities that is doing just dandy, and that's...analytic philosophy, which he just happens to be a scholar in. So grain of salt there. [And, um, I may be incorrect since I've only witnessed undergraduate literature courses at three institutions--all in the south, and one religious--but I'm pretty sure he's wrong when he says that undergrads don't get the canon. Flip through the Norton Anthology--a standard textbook--and it's pretty much dominated by the same DWM canon, with a couple of other writers sprinkled lightly in. I think he's overselling his case, here]

 

EDIT: Oh, he's talking about "advanced" curriculum. So upper-level undergrad/graduate-school-level stuff. Fair enough. It's true that I've not seen hide nor hair of a graduate-level course in Fitzgerald, but--and this is a crucial but--part of the glory of Graduate School is that, as long as you make a case for it, you can write about just about anything in any class. At least, that's been my experience.

 

EDIT EDIT: By an odd coincidence, the above-linked story came across my feed at the same time this post did. It's not directly related, but I think it might indicate the difference between Rosenberg's analytic-philosophy-inflected approach and one that I, personally, find easier to enthuse over:

 

Though the mainstream media always tries to shame academics for having a narrow audience, we should embrace our niche, which is a uniquely vibrant and engaged one. And we should embrace our methodology, which is not to make rigorous arguments (narrowly conceived), not to marshall exhaustive evidence toward an inexorable conclusion — but to curate a fruitful seminar, to cross-breed the seeds in a way that will let a thousand surprising flowers bloom.

 

Edited by NBooth
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Continuing the roundabout, here's Natalia Cecire:

 

Do you know a black child who grew up knowing about America’s great traditions in African American literature, visual art, music, and film? Are you glad Their Eyes Were Watching God and Cane are in print? Then thank the scholars, artists, and activists who have recovered that work—often obscured by a racist publishing culture and by an academy that didn’t think it was important at the time. There’s a reason that students protested and sat in to fight for the establishment of ethnic studies and women’s studies departments in the 1960s and 70s. It wasn’t a fashion statement: serious formal engagement with the cultural contributions of women and ethnic minorities was urgently needed.

 

 

 

She also links to this story suggesting that the decline in Humanities enrollment is attributable to the fact that women are able to get into a broader range of disciplines. Which makes intuitive sense, but I've not crunched the numbers. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

Heather MacDonald on the decline of the Humanities.

Yet the UCLA English department—like so many others—is more concerned that its students encounter race, gender, and disability studies than that they plunge headlong into the overflowing riches of actual English literature—whether Milton, Wordsworth, Thackeray, George Eliot, or dozens of other great artists closer to our own day. How is this possible? The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. 

 

 

David Sessions responds:

The effort to repurpose literary study as an encounter with aesthetic wonder and ancient knowledge, but not political critique, has a very specific politico-theological goal. Note the reverence with which Mac Donald describes her sacralized vision of English literature: “overflowing riches,” “aesthetic wonders,” “loving duty.” She wants sacred texts that tell of a good history, agreat civilization, that proclaim its glory and demand ongoing allegiance to its virtues

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share


×
×
  • Create New...