"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Are English Majors Worthwhile?

I was an English major in the 60s, a choice I made reluctantly on the advice of the Dean.  English was the foundation for all endeavor, he said.  You will learn how to think, write, and better appreciate America’s cultural tradition.  It was a very eloquent apologia for English and the Humanities, but in reality he was proposing English as a default major. You can’t go wrong with English; and if you have no real academic or intellectual direction, you could do worse.

So I majored in English and hated it. This was the era of the New Criticism when text was all that mattered; and stories, poems, novels, and plays were deconstructed into their basic parts with the student asked to look for metaphorical references, Biblical allegories, and historical cross references.  Christ- and Nature-imagery were favorites of English professors in those days, and to leaven their heavy-duty and ponderous lectures, we created a betting pool – who could predict the first minute when the professor saw Christ or an aspect of an animistic Nature.

English was not the only major which suffered from strenuous and torturous attempts to find allegory and hidden meaning.  Vincent Scully, renowned architectural historian and teacher of an undergraduate course in Art History, had this thing for horned mountains, and he saw them everywhere. 

To most of us, these Cretan mountains were not much different from any other, but Scully saw them as incarnations of Minoan gods.

To Scully the mountains were not just massive, inert forces, but ‘thrusting’ phallic symbols of power, creation, and will.  We students created a similar betting pool to guess the time of Scully’s first slide of horned mountains, or his energetic, graphic references to phallic thrusting.

The point is that English as taught in the heyday of the humanities was a dry, academic exercise with very little point other than to convey the professor’s own academic agenda.  There was no attempt to connect literature with life and to show how creative fiction provides insights into human behavior.  History alone can never answer the question why we do what we do, but literature can suggest plausible reasons.

Shakespeare, for example, wrote about the acquisitive nature of Man.  Whether in his Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, or Romances, Shakespeare saw the fundamental drive of human nature.  Kings, queens, princes, pretenders, and usurpers were all driven by a desire to rule, to dominate, to expand the protective perimeter, to assure succession; and to consolidate their gains.  The Comedies were lighthearted but serious dramas about the struggle between men and women in an unequal society.  The Tragedies were about the ultimately corrupting nature of power and the inability of most men to navigate with equanimity through threatening environments.

Reading the dramatic works of Shakespeare, one can only come away with insights into human psychology, social dynamics, and philosophy.  Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus are some of Shakespeare’s ‘governance’ plays in which he places flawed, ambitious, but totally human characters in the high drama of palace politics.

In all of his plays (except Romeo and Juliet) he displays a cynical view of love.  Cleopatra never really loved Antony, but used him for her own self-serving political ends.  Rosalind, Portia, Viola, and most of Shakespeare’s strong, determined, and ambitious women in marry beneath them.  The men despite their social rank, position, and wealth, are no match for their wit and intelligence. The women in the Histories like Margaret (Henry VI)  and Constance (King John) do not love their husbands or sons, but fight indomitably for their rights, maintenance of or accession to the throne.

Reading The Sonnets, most of which are written to a young man with whom the poet is in love, shows a more intimate, engaged, and passionate Shakespeare.  Love does matter, the sonnets, say, and there is even something transformative and eternally beautiful about it.  In the final poems, those written to his ‘Dark Lady’, the poet (Shakespeare) reverts back to cynicism and a misogyny that is veiled in the plays.

The point is, Shakespeare means something to us.  His plays are not just literary constructs to be deconstructed and analyzed for their references, but for their pertinence to reader’s lives.

Despite the beauty, passion, and personal insights of the Sonnets, much of today’s criticism still thrives within the narrow and insular world of academia. Helen Vendler is a renowned literary critic and the author of a number of books on The Sonnets, and here is an excerpt from a discussion of Sonnet 35:

The dédoublement by which the speaker now bitterly scrutinizes his past exculpatory commonplaces is visible chiefly in the violent departures from those Q1 commonplaces in the knotted language of Q2…The speaker resorts to the subsequent analytic metaphor of civil war: the first quatrain was spoken (according to subsequent analysis) by love (not besottedness or moral fatuity) ….

Or Sonnet 14:

Roughly speaking, A (Medicine) precedes B, which precedes C, and so on; but during B’s reign of pain, there appears “belatedly” an element of A (physic); during C’s religious reign….etc. etc.

I don’t mean to pick on Vendler and only wish to illustrate what goes on in the minds of English professors.  They are no different today than when I studied.

I attend a Shakespeare conference in Staunton, VA every two years.  All but a few of us are professional academics, teaching at a variety of universities in the United States. While some of the plenary sessions are interesting enough, elucidating often perplexing contradictions and vague meaning, the smaller colloquies deal with the most arcane, nitpicking, and speculative commentary and criticism.  This is quite understandable. Scholars have been analyzing poor Shakespeare for almost 400 years, and there is precious few new interpretations possible.  PhD students and professors under the publish-or-perish gun must come up with something, and therefore mine every line for references to gender, race, and ethnicity (themes that have replaced Christ and Nature); and then subdivide until a small, but unique niche is discovered.  These are the same professors who are supposed to teach English to undergraduates.

I have a young friend studying for her PhD at Duke in Comparative Literature, and she is deeply immersed in the Postmodernist, Deconstructionist, Freudian, PC exegesis of texts that I thought was dead and gone long ago.  Eventually she will be an English professor, and God help her students.

I am not surprised, therefore, that students are shying away from the English major. Verlyn Klinkenborg writing in the New York Times (6.23.13) notes:

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

Klinkenborg and others have attributed this decline to the perceived inutility of English and other courses in the humanities in today’s competitive, market-driven world.  Economics, mathematics, and engineering are certainly the wiser choices; and this practical bias is certainly one of the main reasons behind the gradual demise of English majors. Fewer young people are willing to put up with the academic fol-de-rol that passes for English teaching especially when they are under pressure from parents, teachers, and friends to ‘make something of themselves’.

Given today’s social and economic environment, I don’t think the English major has much of a chance of revival even if professors change their tune, move away from academic vanity, and refocus on the broad meaning of the works.  Literature is and always will be important and relevant, but not if is taught in a way which confirms its irrelevance.

I think the teaching of English literature has a chance if it is taught as an elective and conforms to current thinking.  Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, perhaps the greatest American novel ever written, can be read as Southern history and as personal drama.  In two pages, Faulkner summarizes the whole painful and heroic history of the South, and then goes on to explore issues of family, race, social position and status, and human dynamics.  Shakespeare can be selectively read for ‘governance’.  His Histories are based on fact, but take fictional liberties with interpretation and characterization. Richard Ford writes about a certain, deflated psychological pessimism in the modern American psyche.  Tennessee Williams writes eloquently about the survival of hope and redemption in the face of a threatening external world. Lillian Hellman and Eugene O’Neill create dramas that can only be set in America and reflect our aspirations and weaknesses.  The list is endless.

As Klinkenborg observes, English courses are becoming more and more divided and specialized.  When my daughter asked me to suggest some courses in English literature she might take at her university, I suggested Modern American Theatre for many of the reasons I have mentioned above.  “No such thing”, she replied, and went on to read from the course offerings.  “Slave Journals: Queer Tales of Antebellum America” was one which caught my eye. “How to Mediate Feminist Writers: Lacan, Television, and the Decline of the Observed” was another.

This Postmodernist fad will end, and unless serious rethinking is done on how to teach English, it will disappear from the curriculum.  I would suggest a more traditional rendering of the discipline but put within a modern context as suggested above.  “Arthur Miller and the Theatre of 20th Century Morality” might be one.  He is the most moral of our playwrights, and Death of a Salesman is part American history, part American dream-making and national illusions, and part family drama.  Willie Loman cannot be viewed except from the perspective of Post-Depression, Postwar America. “Shakespeare, Governance, and Will” might be another.

The handwriting is on the wall – students are not interested in taking English courses any more; and the fight is not to retain the academic, irrelevant, or insignificant offerings that now exist; but to find a new and attractive niche for them.  This is not dumbing down the literature.

I teach an adult course in Shakespeare, Albee, and Tennessee Williams at a major university in Washington, DC.  While I provide an academic framework to the plays, giving an overview of the playwrights’ opus and some historical context, I focus on the relationships between the principal male and female characters.  Antony and Cleopatra is a play about the power politics of the Roman Empire but also about the dynamic relationship between two people.  In short, the course is about history, governance, power politics, and love.  Since I have been teaching it, the comments have been consistent – thanks for transforming classical works into modern, relevant, and accessible tales of life.

Klinkenborg observes:

Studying the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

He is referring to the pigeonholes of practical courses, but her comment could apply to English study as well.  Rather than live in tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, students should come up on deck, scrub the academic grit from their eyes, and look at the world as great writers have – with a full, insightful, and all-encompassing vision.

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