Why English Will Die

(An excerpt from my interview with Christianne McGinn, of Concordia University in Montreal.)

CMG: What’s your own educational background?
Indeed, I often wonder that myself.

CMG: You studied at the University of California and at Oxford, yes?
I spent six months studying at Oxford while an undergrad at Stanford. My BA’s from Stanford, English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. MA & PhD from UC Irvine, focusing on literature, religion, and ethics. I also taught for seven years at UCI, and for eight summers at Phillips Academy Andover.

CMG: How would you describe your approach to academic writing?
Well, I try to write within the humanist tradition of accessible, interdisciplinary writing. This is partly because of my interest in humanists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — mostly Europeans, such as Aldous Huxley and Friedrich Nietzsche, but also Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson, T. S. Eliot, and the Jameses. These were people who wrote in a variety of genres, including fiction, poetry, philosophy, literary criticism, and polemic. They drew upon every field of knowledge, including the sciences and what (we’d now call) “comparative literature.” In other words, I’m interested in writing that speaks to political and existential problems larger than its particular field. But it’s also a tradition those writers were themselves reading and reflecting upon; my intellectual heroes include, for example, Erasmus, for his lifelong project of trying to create a unified intellectual and religious culture in Europe. Rather than seeing that as a failed project — because it was made to seem irrelevant and cowardly by Luther and the gathering storm of the Reformation — I see it as a project that was interrupted early on, and thus had to be consigned to future generations.

CMG: A unified intellectual and religious culture speaks to my next question, about the relevance of academic work in the humanities and social sciences. Where you would like English to go compared to where it is going?

OK, keep in mind this is really an American perspective. Maybe things are better in Canada; I certainly hope so. The study of English, as an academic discipline, is dying out in this country. It’s being replaced by “rhetoric and composition,” which is low-level writing instruction, and by expanded creative writing programs — beyond that, students who once would have majored in English are doing any number of things, some staying in the humanities, others not.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, text is losing ground to other media (film, television, telecommunications) and hypertext. That’s pure historical circumstance; similarly, many oral traditions were made obsolete by books. But there are other, less inevitable factors in play. American students today have the worst language skills they have had for almost a century, thanks to reduced spending on education and an unjust economic system. Furthermore, there are enormous gaps between the humanities as they are taught, and the humanities as they are practiced, in the modern American university. Beginning in the late 1960s, literary scholarship in America began to show the influence of French postmodernism and Continental Marxism — drawing, that is, upon writers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Paul de Man. The discipline got sidetracked into various political and philosophical questions — such as questions about the nature of surveillance in a police state, or about communication and language (often termed “signification”) in general. These debates are a world away from the experiences of novice readers writing their first serious critical essays. It’s not like a renowned physics scholar teaching a class on elementary principles. There was really no connection, at all, between the questions in Jacques Derrida’s books, and the issues that mattered to first or second year undergraduates fond of reading novels. Derrida was not a literary critic; he was a philosopher who occasionally illustrated his points with examples from literature.

This destroyed American literary criticism, because American scholars were using their field — whatever it was, medieval British literature or contemporary African theater or early American poetry — as a platform to enter philosophical debates of no interest to mainstream readers. In fact, most of the population couldn’t even read the new “literary criticism.” They didn’t know its specialized terms or its intellectual history. Harold Bloom was probably our last “populist” literary critic; presently, there is no-one with the stature of a Lionel Trilling (postwar period) or a T.S. Eliot (writing criticism from the 20s all the way through World War II). In the 1960s, the humanities were considered allies of the counterculture and national movements for civil rights, equality, and environmental protections. By the 1990s, even though most professors still identified with these same ideals, there was in fact no longer any dialogue between academics in the humanities and activists in the streets. Nor was there much connection between the largely philosophical world of literary criticism and the professional world of writers, who formed their own separate courses of study in order to teach writing as a craft (i.e. MFA programs).

Feminism, in fact, is a great example of these forking paths. When Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, it was both a highly practical book concerned with the impact of oppressive social structures on the lives of ordinary women, and an existentialist work only a little behind the cutting edge of contemporary philosophy. Conversely, third-wave feminist theorists like Helene Cixous or Luce Irigaray produced texts that engaged other thinkers in the field, but did not speak to the political concerns of the day. A vast ocean separated academic feminist texts, like Gender Trouble or The Sex Which Is Not One, from more pragmatic works like Susan Faludi’s Backlash or Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. In fact, in many important ways, these thinkers who were supposedly in the same movement had ceased even to agree on questions like “What does it mean to be a woman?”

CMG: Yes, and I think there are similar issues in other disciplines.
Definitely. English gained back a little ground by incorporating new sorts of media, but this also had an obvious result — the rise of (for example) Film Studies departments, not the revitalization of English. Cut off from both the production of literature (by writers, who were now getting MFAs) and any sort of concrete political activism that shared literature’s moral concerns, English has become an insular academic pursuit, doomed to become increasingly shrill, suspect, and finally irrelevant. It borrows its self-justifications from history (historicism), philosophy (postmodernism and other branches of “critical theory”), and psychoanalysis. Sometimes it even ventures into cognitive science or quantum physics — for example, Stephen Greenblatt’s desperate attempt to read Lucretius as a quantum theorist in The Swerve. English incorporates other media, and then watches as those media become disciplines in their own right, competing for the same limited pool of students and resources.

CMG: I was going to ask about its relevance to popular culture. and to ask you to clarify the difference between English and other types of writing instruction.
Rhet/Comp: emphasis on writing skills and rhetorical efficacy. Students do some reading, but only in order to have something to write about; if they watch a television show and write about that, they may not read much at all during the term. Creative Writing: fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction (e.g. the personal essay, Sedaris et al.). MFAs may write a handful of expository, “critical” essays, or they may write none at all. They do not produce meta-texts, books about other books, except incidentally to meet their course requirements (which may only be in place because the school can’t hire a full faculty in Creative Writing).
What I wrote in “Stop Using Rhetoric To Teach Writing” applies to the pop culture issue:
There is a great deal of general anxiety among teachers that students will not read big books, particularly big books that aren’t anthologies. This premonition is very often correct; over the course of my life, I have been assigned a lot of big books that I didn’t finish. Nonetheless, by setting the bar high, we get more from students than we otherwise would. The big problem occurs when the alternative, having students write about short opinion pieces and pop culture, gets so entrenched that instruction in writing becomes completely generalized, indistinguishable from the incidental flow of words that fills up the day. It is true that other artistic forms are just as holistic as literature, but unfortunately they do not simultaneously teach writing. That is why writing curricula must emphasize longer texts, and why universities must take a more enlightened view of how undergraduate instruction in English will translate into real-world skills.

CMG: An English department that doesn’t value literary criticism is undermining itself. Do the English professors themselves care any longer? How many have you talked to who simply no longer believe?
None. How sad is that? They don’t see it crumbling. They don’t realize that this isn’t like the slumps of previous recessions, which of course also depressed hiring and enrollment; English in the United States will not recover when the economy in general does. Most English scholars probably would say that they do believe in literary criticism, but they would be defining criticism in very recent, highly specialized terms, encompassing whole “fields” (such as “narratology”) that are unknown outside academia. I’m thinking about my friends who have drifted into other fields, or even entirely different professions, and this quote (from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain) comes to mind: “Someone hearing about it later imagines how ghastly it must have been, but forgets that illness — and my present situation is more or less an illness — batters its victim until they get along with one another. The senses are diminished, a merciful self-narcosis sets in — those are the means by which nature allows the organism to find relief.”

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