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

Literary criticism as a university discipline may be dying. What implications does this have for secondary teachers?


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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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Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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