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The Decline of the English Department

Early in his analysis of The Decline of the English Department, William Chace asserts that what is at the root of the decline

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.

Chace sketches the history of the decline of the humanities, concluding that the notion that the literary humanities in particular have been at the heart of American higher education is [. . .] a mirage. Even so, Chace cannot help but nostalgically recall the masterly interpretations of literature’s greatest works by a former instructor whose authority it would have been ‘bootless’ [. . .] to question. The tension between the need to document the historical facts of the decline of English and the emotional significance literary studies holds for Chace structures the disillusion that unfolds in the distance between what is, to Chace, the rightful place of literary studies in higher education and its actual value to students and university administrators. For Chace, the historical coda which brings us to the present sorry state of literary studies is scored by the gentle but persistent undertones of a diversifying student body to whom books look smaller as well as the defunding of education in general. However, the major melody of this historical and continuing decline resides not in something that has happened to [English], but in what it has done to itself.

Chace documents this self-inflicted mortal wound in a lamentation about the multiplication of interpretive frameworks in English, identifying them as

myriad pursuits, each heading away from any notion of a center—[the proliferation of which] has prompted many thoughtful people to question what, indeed, the profession of literature amounts to.

His final recommendations can be summarized as a call for the return of order in literary interpretation and an exhortation to assuage undergraduates confused by the provisionality of literary critcal activity. Chace wants teachers of English to focus on teaching their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities.1

To his conclusion, all I can say is good luck with that. Having (let alone getting) faculty trained in the analysis of the objects, artifacts, and phenomena broadly understood as the legitimate domain of “English” to teach students how to write better is a waste of students’ time, teachers’ skills, and social resources. Chace considers teaching to write well a goal worthy in itself, but everything in US culture and commerce points to the fact that good writing is largely ornamental, something especially true as concerns literary writing. Without even addressing whether good (as opposed to competent) writing can be taught, does Chace really think that all the students flocking to study business management and the employers who will eventually hire them care how well those students can analyze literature in writing?2

The reasons for the decline of English as a discipline are beyond the ability of English departments to address. The decline is not the result of anthropological, sociological, theoretical, and philosophical approaches embraced by the discipline, especially given that these very approaches reinvograted the discipline beginning in the 1970s and kept the discipline alive at least through the late 1980s. What is chipping away at English as a discipline is the radical irrelevance of literature to the formation of personal identity, the founding of philosophical principles, and the shaping of social policy in an age of electronic and non-paper print media.

Chace’s well-written article comes to all the wrong conclusions, which just goes to show good writing don’t mean a thing. In among his seductive, nostalgic, and mistaken lines of argument, Chace notes

Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.

A larger discursus would summarize the points McLuhan makes in The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media about how paper-print literacy comes to seem thought itself in a culture dominated by books when, in fact, writing well and analyzing literature are only specialized forms of knowledge relevant only within the domain of paper-print, but this is not that discursus.

I’ll end by noting that what scholars of paper-print identify as signs of clear thinking, well-balanced argumentation, and adequate development are largely conventions of paper-print. In an age where television, film, video games and digital text dominate, what people believe to be persuasive argumentation takes forms that look nothing like the primary objects of study of traditional English departments. The future of the English department is the study of new media.

Evolve or die.

end of article

1 Which is different than arguing that instructors trained in the teaching of writing should place composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their teaching.
2 Please please please spare me your unsubstantiated claims about how skills in literary analysis translate to excellence in, for example, grant writing.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy, the Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

—. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.