Is English literature dying?
   No, but university English departments are not well

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Does it matter to high schools that the teaching of literature at universities seems to have reached a dead end?

It seems odd that as English declines at the university level, it remains the most taught subject in high school. All but a half-dozen states have state-wide requirements for high school graduation and nearly all of them require four years of English. Most require three years of social studies and two or three years of math and science--but four years of English.

English, it’s true, has always been the most heterodox of subjects in high school, including grammar and writing and speech and media studies and all manner of social and political meanderings. But mostly, it’s been about literature. I sometimes wonder to what extent the teaching of literature in high school is mostly a habit, like homecoming and prom.

The Nation has joined the widespread lament about the death of literary criticism as an academic profession. “The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying,” says William Deresiewicz in his review of a new edition of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature. In brief, the story of the decline of the profession goes like this: “Classicists had been deposed by humanists, humanists by historians, historians by critics and now critics by theorists. . . .” This has been accompanied by “a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline” in the number of students studying English literature.

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It’s an old story, though it may be news to some of The Nation’s readers. When a version of the tale was told by Peter Berkowitz in The Policy Review, he found a way to think optimistically about it. First, he acknowledges that university English departments are largely unaccountable and resistant to reform:

Reform of the teaching and study of literature will take time. Universities change slowly. The institution of life tenure, and the central role played by senior faculty in the easy-to-manipulate peer review process in the humanities at both university presses and scholarly journals combine to create an academic system in which true believers determined to reproduce their ideas and disseminate their opinions exercise largely unaccountable power.

He then suggests that the very absurdity of these departments might trigger a restoration led by students:

Perhaps those in whom the love of literature is young and eager offer some hope. Can aging hipsters rambling on in the classroom in opaque language about oppositional aspirations and transgressive interpretations while living comfortable and conformist lives really be a pretty sight to curious and intelligent college students? Many of those students choose to study literature at the university because in high school, or at home, or by chance they were exposed to the likes of Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Chaucer, Moliere, Cervantes, Goethe, Keats, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Melville, Virginia Woolf, and Proust. Or J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien. Or Saul Bellow, Tom Wolfe, Kazuo Ishiguro, and A. S. Byatt. And perhaps such students can reawaken in their professors the pleasure in a story well told, the delight in a character who surprises and confounds, the thrill in a formulation that captures an emotion, that sets free a thought, that spurs the imagination to further flights.

More likely, I think, the old hipsters will die and they will be replaced by people who think feelingly in different ways. Thomas Kuhn has taught us that reform is brought about by generational succession more often than by emperors of old regimes changing their minds. I hope he is right, though, that the very existence of the centuries’ treasure of great literature will create an audience and that this audience will create the institutional means of passing on a deep understanding of that great tradition.

After all, it is not so much that the reading of literature is in decline (though to some degree it is--see Here and Here) as that modernism and post-modernism have reached a dead end.

In some ways this probably doesn’t matter. It’s not as though university English departments have shown much interest in preparing secondary teachers or have taken on the burdens of leadership for pre-collegiate literature studies. Although younger graduates do have a marked fondness for books that feel multicultural, many of the high school English teachers I know go on teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckelberry Finn without a thought as to what university English professors are professing.

Still, it’s hard to imagine English keeping its pre-eminence in high schools when few students now choose it as a college major and when the reasons for studying literature given by the elites in the profession do not speak to the ideals of most citizens.

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Without leadership from the universities--or anywhere--there’s not much agreement among secondary teachers about what should be taught or why. English is, as they say, what is done in English class.

It’s true of course that the teaching of literature has taken many forms through the years and neither the aims nor the methods has ever been fully standardized. In the early nineteenth century, the teaching of literature in high school focused on extracts from great works by Greek and Roman authors. Often these were offered as models for good composition.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, most high schools had established English as a separate subject, and many books focused on the history of English literature. Works were selected that, the editors believed, would promote morality or develop taste. Because of growing feelings of nationalism, a few began to deal with American literature. Libraries and cheap books were making literature accessible to most people, and many cultural elites felt that popular fiction would contribute to immorality. They felt it was important to teach young people to recognize good literature, and English in the schools was supposed to elevate taste. Textbooks of the time featured many authors who will be familiar to modern students: Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Scott, Irving, and Franklin.

Later, literature was taught mainly with large anthologies with long selections from many authors. Near the end of the nineteenth century, universities began to require essays relating to literature as part of their entrance exams and they distributed reading lists to help high school teachers prepare students. Such lists became the de facto English curriculum in high school. In 1892, several universities created a standard reading list that students would be tested over and this became “the canon” that to a some degree is still taught today.

Among the aims of teaching literature mentioned in texbooks being used in the 1950s, we find developing an appreciation of literary masterpieces, enjoying the reading of good literature, building foundations for future study, developing mental discipline, tracing literary changes, and learning to choose the best literature.

Today’s literature anthologies for high school tend to be enormous things that are sold with comprehensive packages of materials so that, in theory anyway, they can be used to teach basic reading skills, grammar, composition, literary terminology, literary history including the biographies of authors, and various interpretive strategies. There is a scarcely a criterion on a review committee’s checklist that would go unchecked. But their comprehensiveness makes it hard for a teacher looking for guidance to find a plan. They are wildly incoherent.

Which seems to accurately reflect our thoughts about what English should be.


Hugh Mercer Curtler: There are a number of reasons why young people avoid the humanities these days. To begin with, for all intents and purposes, many college students cannot read. Data show that enrollments among freshmen in remedial English courses in many public four-year colleges and universities are as high as 55 percent. Even in private four-year colleges the percentage is an astonishing 13 percent. And these statistics must be considered in light of the fact that many current freshman courses would have been considered “remedial” forty or fifty years ago. Furthermore, the vocabulary of the average college student today has shrunk by 72 percent when compared with the average vocabulary of college students in the 1950s. Books have been replaced by computers, TV, videogames, and movies. Many college students in today’s world grow up in households where parents also do not read. It is, therefore, difficult to get students to read, and when they do they often cannot grasp the basic ideas on the printed page. Because of what E.D. Hirsch calls a lack of shared schemata necessary for reading and writing, a number of studies suggest that reading comprehension has dropped precipitously in the past thirty or forty years, along with basic math skills. In research compiled for the Fall 2002 National Education Progress Report in 1985, for example, 56 percent fewer students scored above 600 on the SATs than in 1972 and 73 percent fewer scored above 650. It is not difficult to understand, then, why these students find reading a chore. The recent flood of films in the humanities notwithstanding, the humanities center around the reading of books. Consequently, students avoid these areas if at all possible. In fact, in 1985 only 8 percent of entering college freshmen indicated that they planned to major in the arts and humanitiesas contrasted with 21 percent only fifteen years before.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey






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