What's Wrong with English?

Glenn Ricketts

Why has the English major, once among the most frequently chosen by undergraduates declined so precipitously? Mark Bauerlein, who teaches the subject himself at Emory University, thinks it’s a case of letting the air out of your own balloon (at CHE in this piece). The discipline has done a number on itself, saturated with identity politics and – are you ready? – race, class, gender, and sexuality. That really resonated with one poster in the discussion thread:

I had no background in English 15 years ago when, as a 50-something pursuing a 2nd career, I entered an English-related field for graduate work. I quickly saw how virtually every course, every conference, every degree, and every department was dominated by identity politics. English has destroyed itself from within by rejecting its primary mission and embracing a damaging and silly ideology

But even if you were able to set aside the dreary indoctrination, Bauerlein argues that there’s really not much of a discipline left, if by discipline you mean starting with the basics and progressing up to more sophisticated selections that build on that foundation.  Instead of literature, introductory courses – now even at the high school level, believe it or not – are usually front-loaded with leaden theory, not literature, even bad literature. Something like giving beginning Latin students the ablative absolute during their first month, and then wondering what’s wrong. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that Derrida, Lacan or the infinite varieties Marxist, feminist, or Queer theory don’t light a fire in the bellies of many prospective majors. I don’t need to add that Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, etc., are usually tossed out.   

Literary studies have been loosed from their moorings for some time now, as documented in our study of a decade ago, Losing the Big Picture. Now there’s not really a picture at all, simply an endless hall of mirrors. You can still read the canonical works, of course. But you'll need to go to your local book store or public library – I wouldn't bother with the English department.

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