Why English Departments Died

The study of literature no longer animates students' minds and souls. The post Why English Departments Died appeared first on The American Conservative.

I was a poor student at a college that I couldn’t control.

I arrived to study classical literature, but the program was virtually non-existent. I read Homer the first semester, and discovered that it was the culmination of the Greek curriculum, much like high school.


So, I was forced to spend my tuition money and time elsewhere. I tried to take up philosophy, but was unsuccessful. However, I managed to finish English and history. I gave up philosophy because my professors were boring and theology because they were nuts. English was the best part of my degree because I loved the professors.

Of course, they were all liberals. The only conservatives were at the business school. But that was irrelevant. They were bright and pleasant and cared about the subject they were teaching. However, they did not abuse it with the ideologic torture devices of the postmodern school.

As long as you chose your courses well, the curriculum was also quite traditional. I avoided feminist poetry and postcolonial research. I was able to read the English Renaissance literature with Edmund Spenser, the greatest living scholar, an affable figure who was then ninety and had studied at Yale with C.S. Lewis. I was accompanied by an old-school, elbow-patch lecturer who read Jane Eyre as well as Kipling. He did more than a few things to make sure that I didn’t fail Victorian Literature. I read modernist poets with a South African eccentric who was pony-tailed and whose performative borderline madness brought form and substance to life.

I enjoyed reading literature and realized that I was able to do this in a way that quickly disappeared from American higher education. I read all the great classics from Beowulf to The Four Quartets. I was also able to read Julian of Norwich and Ezra Pound’s lesser poems, as well as many other amazing little works that I wouldn’t have found outside of the classroom.

Pound’s “Near Perigord”, a speculative historical poem about Bertran de Born that Dante condemned to the eighth circle, was what attracted me. It also inspired me to write my largest paper for the modernist lit course. The professor did not clear it with me as I was supposed. It was returned to me a few weeks later after he had written on the back that I misunderstood it. As I understood it, the “A” was just a few lines below.


Three years ago, I was still wondering if there were other students who had similar experiences. Nathan Heller, a semi-viral writer from the New Yorker examines the “free fall” in enrollments in the humanities and asks “What’s the deal?”

Let me be clear, the present is not your home country.

Heller is reporting from Arizona State University and Harvard College. Heller is puzzled by the drop in English majors at Arizona State University in eight years. However, “The university’s tenure track English faculty is seventy one strong–including eleven Shakespeare scholars most of them of colour.” Heller also doesn’t understand why the same number at Harvard College has fallen by three-quarters in the same time period. Harvard students are so focused on “identity.”

One of the most notable passages in the essay is when Amanda Claybaugh, a Harvard dean, admits that her English students are unable to read The Scarlet Letter. This popular fiction work is not even 200 years old and it is difficult to understand.

Heller and his correspondents offer some thoughts on the causes of the crisis. Professor James Shapiro from Columbia asserts ironically that 1958, when federal money was first opened with the National Defense Education Act, marked “the beginning of glory days for the humanities.” However, everything went to hell after the money stopped in 2007.

This is absurd, and the real problem is bad professors who teach bad curricula. The wider education crisis is also evident, leaving even the most elite university students unable engage with the material taught to them in middle school a century ago. In the immediate sense, however, the decline of the humanities can be attributed to many factors.

It began a few generations back–1958 is a good starting point, but the double influx from Vietnam draft dodgers (and G.I.) was a much more significant one. A decade later, the Bill beneficiaries are probably a better choice. This is when people with no business in America began flooding American campuses. This shift required the beginning of the dumbing down. The dumbdown began when enough newcomers were able to get into PhD programs, then onto faculties.

It is possible to discuss how much the problems of LGBT radicalism and racial discrimination, which are some of the most visible humanities of today, lie downstream from this process. It is neither political nor economic. It is academic.

Between 2012 and 2020, human nature didn’t change. English departments did. The last remnants of the old regime were gone. (My friend, the famed Spenser expert, went into rest during the first weeks after the pandemic. This was sixty-seven year after he graduated Yale. Anyone who has ever walked into an English class in any American school today will understand what happened to the English major. Literature study has lost its appeal in those days.

A few weeks back, I was dragged to a bookstore/cafe/bar which did not score well on all of these counts. I discovered a book of Pound’s selected poetry among the piles of BLM manifestos. It included “Near Perigord” and was not like the one I had in my study.

I was pacing near the fireplace a few days later as I read the poem that had first captured my imagination during an undergraduate English class.

It still sings and haunts me, and I’m happy to report it can still excite young men with its mix of romance and conspiracy and of strategy and lyrics–in a way no disquisition about racism in The Tempest ever could.

It will be found on every college syllabus in the country. Then ask yourself why the humanities are dying.

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