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Brave New English

ISSUE:  Autumn 1999
The Rise and Fall of English. By Robert Scholes. Yale. $25. 00 cloth, $10.95 paper.

It is tempting to say at once that this small treasure of a book should be read by every past, present, and future professor of English and by every college and university administrator concerned about American higher education. It would make all of these keenly understand where the profession of teaching English, so central to higher education, has been, is, and will likely be in the 21st century. But it would be misleading to say any such thing because the book (sadly) proves how resistant many of the above are to respond to its information, insights, wisdom, and proposals, if, indeed, they would incline to read it at all.

Departments of English in American colleges and universities have over the last half century become almost haphazard collections of unrelated disciplines. They no longer confine themselves to the study, in any form, of literature and to the teaching of basic or skilled writing. At a large state university, such departments today embrace, in addition to vestiges of the traditional curriculum, a manically heterogeneous assortment of subjects, some with only the wispiest or strained relevance to literature or writing, ranging from movies to essentially sociological subjects. In spite of this indiscriminate hospitality, most specialists in one area are likely to be ignorant of or contemptuous of other areas, which tend to function like medievally insular fiefdoms. Very few English faculty seem to care about effective teaching.

This agglomeration of contents, the centrifugal spinning off of satellite disciplines, all the restless churning, might well have their delights and rationales. As Scholes observes, “as universities became more and more driven by their professional schools. . .literature departments, and especially departments of English literature, represented the last, purest bastion of liberal education.” But the wildly assorted ingredients in the English department mix today remain unassimilated, unblended, each blatantly asserting its distinctiveness. The narrow study in isolation of literature, or of subjects listed under its rubric, can scarcely be liberal or humanistic.

While muddling any clear-cut identity, English departments were also establishing their indispensability to every other unit on campus through their purported mission of teaching decent writing. In higher educationese, English departments came to provide an essential “service,” like janitorial or telephonic support. Obviously full literacy, reading and writing with care, is fundamental to the absorption and dissemination of all knowledge, and it is good that other than literature professors have learned to understand this and love us, even if in their own ways.

Inevitably, English lost much of its authentic, defining particularity in reaching its amorphous universality. Some campuses eliminated English departments altogether, elevating them to “schools” of “letters” or “communications” (when I see that word, I think of the waving of small flags, the tapping of Morse code, occasionally of sending messages by ESP, most recently of the intricacies of e-mail). English departments themselves play with nomenclature, sometimes including in their titles “language,” “comparative literature,” “American,” “Comparative,” or “Composition.”

Some campuses unabashedly display their indifference to the intertwining of reading and writing by separating out from the study of literature independent units that concentrate on expository and creative writing virtually in vacuo. Apparently forgotten or minimized have been the strictures of such eminences in the profession as Marjorie Nicolson and Lionel Trilling, in the United States, and F.R. Leavis and Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Britain, who repeatedly linked skill in writing with skill in reading. The British have largely managed to encapsulate learning to write in the course of mastering any subject, a melding neglected in the states.

Few phenomena in the general decline of English evoke more distress in the midst of Scholes’s calm analyses than the neglect of writing. “[J]ust the other day,” he writes, “I sat in a room full of English professors and heard them complaining about the writing of their students. . . . What was most dispirited about the conversation . . . was that it seemed to presuppose writing to be a mere tool, something students ought to have picked up along the way. This is, to put it as mildly as my indignation will let me, not helpful. The ability to write well in a range of expressive modes ought to be a major and explicit goal of any discipline called English.” Let me add that Scholes is too land in excluding from his excoriation the execrable writing of many professors of English. Too few watch these watchmen.

As the undergraduate curriculum has failed to integrate fully careful reading with careful writing (testing in subject matter courses is commonly done entirely with multiple choice boxes or short answers), graduate offerings have failed to join advanced literary study with pedagogy, except for a few notable exceptions, although the vast majority of graduate students go into teaching.(Scholes does not bring up the prevailing indifference to teaching among some English professors.) This chasm between scholarship and pedagogy, too, has defied other convictions of Miss Nicolson, who had been a successful high school teacher, and Dr. Leavis, who prided himself on his skilled undergraduate teaching at Cambridge. They believed that committed, uncompromised teaching was as vital to the profession, and as rare, as enlightening analysis and scholarship.

Our English departments have, in short, become nearly anarchic in focus and expectation of faculty or students, undergraduate or graduate. They are shrinking or bloating, as incredibly and unpredictably as Alice. Meanwhile, professors themselves do less and less on campus. Tenure in English today often requires less responsibility than shuffling paper in the lowest government bureaucracy. In my half century of professoring, I have seen teaching schedules go from a burdensome four classes per week for all English faculty to a Utopian no classes for many. The original purpose of released time was to provide opportunity for reading and research, to learn more in order to teach more. But some English professors today use their freedom from class and colleagues for endeavors utterly unrelated to their teaching, to run private businesses, to hold down other jobs, to pursue hobbies, rarely to replenish their professional resources.

What English departments have done abundantly and emphatically is demonstrate the desperate need for a book like Robert Scholes’s, which tries to sort things out and chart an improved course for the future. What Scholes wishes is not a return to any golden past but a new ascent, a revival and fulfillment of the richest hopes of the past, the rise of a phoenix. Scholes vividly describes the development of English as a separate discipline in the evolution of American higher education, from the time of the great divinity oriented private institutions of the 18th century, like Yale and Harvard, to the enormous secular public ones of the 20th, like the dozen or so that one might readily trip off the tongue. Scholes reviews the emergence of English from theology and rhetoric to an independent discipline.

Few traditional English departments have willingly, let alone eagerly, admitted new bodies of literature into the curriculum. American literature was barred for long periods as was British writing itself by still living authors. From the beginning, the quite legitimate but sometimes too abstruse question of what constituted “literature” made barriers. Academic celebrities have declared that only in hell would they teach creative writing or mingle current writing with the classics.(I agree that no creative writing degree should be awarded to anyone who has not seriously studied a range of literature. Have we ever had a good painter, sculptor, or musician who did not intimately know the significant works in his medium?)

Scholes suggests nothing so simplistic as new taxonomies of periods or genres or the introduction of pedagogy courses although he repeatedly broods about the mindlessly elitist exclusion of various popular forms of verbal expression and ceaselessly assumes the prime importance of attentive, responsive teaching. He does, implicitly and explicitly, keep emphasizing the imperative of integrating radical new approaches to reading with ancient, unceasing concern with quality and value of texts and an alert sensitivity to craft. He elaborates on the earliest realizations that literature has a humanizing import, that teaching and learning its content and nature are civilizing forces.

“I learned . . . ,” he writes at one point, “like many others, to find in literature a substitute for my church. . . . That is, I came to believe, with others of my generation, that reading literature and criticizing it were the best things a human being could do with life (with the possible exception of producing literature that might lend itself profitably to such exacting critical scrutiny).” He is in harmony here with the secular emphasis of critics like Trilling and Leavis on the moral core of literature and literary study.

Scholes’s proposals for halting, or at least slowing, the fall of English are, properly, embracingly philosophical: the descent is vast and all inclusive. His ideas should certainly work over time once inaugurated. I think the problem would be with getting the various establishments involved, first, even to recognize the fact of a fall, and, second, to agree about ways to reverse it. I would suggest two preliminary steps that might facilitate achieving Scholes’s estimable large objectives.

First, I think campuses might redistribute into their logical places a good number of the miscellaneous bits and pieces that now compose the jigsaw puzzle of English. An astute administrator could profitably divide them up among existing units: chronological surveys of English and American writing could go alongside or into relevant history courses; history of the language into a linguistics curriculum; criticism and esthetic theory into philosophy; dramatic literature into a theater department; film into film; basic writing courses into the separate colleges (we already have subspecialties of legal, business, and technical writing); even those radical new courses seeking to unravel the mysteries and pleasures of reading, into psychology and philosophy and perhaps, under imaginative guidance, even into the new field of artificial intelligence; and so on. Such redistribution would force isolated specialties to root their values and substance in larger, deeper soils and to find fresh, wider perspectives, into which they would fit organically.

We might still profitably keep smaller, independent departments of English dedicated specifically to literature and creative work. Such focus might revitalize the discipline and make it autonomous again. We might offer creative writing in the way units in the history and theory of art or music offer studio and performance courses. We might ask English majors to compose a poem, work of fiction, play, or essay as part of their study. Such reborn departments might more profitably respond to creative and intellectual efforts in the world at large, wisely absorbing innovative approaches to revelatory reading and writing.

We might also encourage the interdisciplinary, the truly liberal, the sensibly focused teaching of capacious subjects subsuming literature, on the connections between psychiatric theorizing and texts (studies in suicide, e.g.), say, in the backgrounds of modern thought (as in the seminars taught jointly at Columbia by Trilling and Jacques Barzun), comparisons of literary works with movies made from them, on ethical issues involved in business and the professions, on expression arising from childhood or old age or from the Holocaust.

Second, administrators might return to a more rigorous review of faculty credentials. Varieties of misapprehension and inattention have come to govern the assessment of academic qualification in the humanities, especially in English. I have seen persons plainly promote themselves. Professors are not altogether oblivious to reality. With the boom in higher education and the consequent spreading thin of administrative experience, professors realized that trumpeting teaching or research, especially when hollow or dubious, is far easier for getting ahead than achieving substance. Inept, inexperienced, preoccupied administrators welcome uncomplicated standards for evaluating faculty, like the simple counting of publications, reference letters, and student plaudits. Increasingly, professors puff up their records to the brink of fraud. Administrators have named tenured and even chaired professors arbitrarily, on their own, ignoring the tradition of consulting senior faculty.

Scholes concludes one chapter: “It would be nice if [our students] learned from us a lesson about the university that did not emphasize its fraudulence and its artificiality.” This is an admirably restrained comment about academic practice that often approaches scandal.

Scholes does not offer a straightforward, inclusive account of the rise and fall of English, as the book’s title promises, although his chapters do incorporate details of that history. I missed especially a summary and discussion of the effects on the profession of such seminal chairpersons as Marjorie Nicolson, of the graduate school at Columbia; G. Warner Rice, of the University of Michigan; Robert Heilman, of the University of Washington; and Fredson Bowers of the University of Virginia. Scholes does talk with admiration about John Gerber, of the University of Iowa, whose long tenure there as chairman and his history of that department have contributed outstandingly to higher English education. I would have liked to know Scholes’s sense of the contributions by I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, Freud and the post Freudians, Lacan, Derrida, Levi-Straus, prominent feminist critics, Gerald Graff. He much too briefly though suggestively takes issue with philosopher Richard Rorty’s remarks about our discipline. I would have liked to read him on the emphases introduced to English in recent years by radically pioneering departments, like those at Yale, Duke, and SUNY Buffalo.

Scholes aptly calls his five chapters “independent but interrelated essays,” intimating that we still need extensive coverage of the chronicle of English, matching in definitiveness accounts of the rises and falls of other major Western institutions short of the Roman empire. Much of the book has already appeared in print in other form; Scholes says that his recycling incorporated his retesting and rethinking of his ideas. My main reservation about his method is that his original publishers belong to the English establishment: the Modern Language Association of America, the National Council of Teachers of English, university presses. No question that the audiences so reached needed to read this material, and I am sure more than a few persons profited from it, but at times I felt Scholes, in perhaps couching his original comments so as not to offend colleagues and functionaries too grievously, allowed his revised observations to remain too circumspect, genteel, oblique, misapprehended and, at times, perhaps not apprehended at all. They provide food for thought, certainly, but so appetizingly and sparingly as to be followed by a raging hunger—and shortly, alas, to drop the metaphor, by characteristic, institutional amnesia.

Scholes’s work proves that a genuine, informed, lasting consciousness of the decline and fall of English must thoroughly shake up the entire academic establishment, from boards of trustees down to departmental commons rooms, before we can richly profit from his sharp scrutiny and noble vision.


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