Having read The American Scholar for probably over thirty years, I could only feel the most seething contempt for the Autumn 2009 article by William M. Chace, “The Decline of the English Department: How it happened and what could be done to reverse it.”
I found myself repeatedly thinking while reading it, is this all you can come up with? What do you expect? The American English department is thoroughly sunk in doctrinaire nihilism and cynicism, as are all of the humanities, indeed, modern culture. We don’t believe there’s any value, meaning, or purpose to life. Who in their right mind would want to spend their lives studying the idiocies that the humanities have given themselves to over the last decades? I didn’t in the 1980s when I found myself subjected to bumbling fools prating about Derrida and the End of Everything, while composition “specialists” were busy draining off, in their own way, anything worthwhile to write about. Clearly fewer and fewer young people are interested. Good for them. There’s hope after all. Unfortunately, that leaves most of them grossly illiterate and nescient about human civilization. But that’s what you ultimately get when you have coercion of conscience by tutors, clerks.
William M. Chace does not ask a single, worthwhile question about why the decline of the humanities has taken place, but only gives the reader the usual academic platitudes, which I’m not even going to repeat, they’re such a common coin, an old tale retold now for decades. How nauseating. The corrupt, coercive system deserves to decline, indeed collapse. Only then is there a small chance that people both inside and outside of the academy might begin to ask truly serious questions and seek truly serious answers. There’s nothing serious about university studies today. With this article, The American Scholar has proven it for anyone in doubt.
The professionalization of literary studies has been disastrous. Who was it who said so many decades ago that the Ph.D. would destroy education? It definitely has. It’s put ignoramuses, time-servers, and goose-steppers in the classroom in endless droves. Why is anyone surprised that they have burned down the Sacred Grove? They’ve destroyed literature, turning it into an academic plaything.
And who has assisted them? Worthless, illiterate university administrators, more interested in cynically maximizing profits, exploiting teaching assistants, professors, and everyone else on campus, sucking the juice out of state and federal funding. Having lost all sense of the duty to morally and spiritually cultivate students, administrators allow them to flounder along, happy to continue to raise costs and keep the money flowing in, often to themselves.
It’s our whole vision of life that has become exhausted, not merely the English Department. William M. Chace’s criticism of the fragmenting of the humanities into sub-disciplines obsessed with gender and ethnicity is an accurate assessment, but an old one by now. How do we recover what we have in common as human beings and humanists? You won’t find an answer in The American Scholar or any other academic journal.
My advice? End Ph.D. programs, corrupting organizations like the MLA (Modern Language Association), all MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs, “studies” departments cannibalizing both intellectual life and what humanity has in common. Once that’s done, literature (anyone remember what that is?) might stand a chance to recover a noble, inspiring vision of the human being. If that’s beyond conception, reread Tolstoy’s What is Art? He may have been under the strain of fighting the drift of early modernity, made many errors, but at least he went down in battle, and is much healthier than the academic types one finds in American English departments. Russia would have been much better off if it had followed Tolstoy, instead of Lenin. Academicians themselves have declined, while whining about anti-intellectualism and philistines whenever they’re met with real criticism, instead of sycophantic students desperately working on their Ph.Ds, though that seldom happens since they keep themselves so isolated.
William M. Chace’s closing comments are feeble, if not pathetic. Aesthetics? We’ve been there for centuries. All recipes for further decline, accommodation, etc. Let’s not feel bad. Let’s put on a happy face. Sad but revealing of how bankrupt educated discussion has become.
Here’s a novel suggestion not tried or seriously considered in most academic departments for some time now. In your office, get down on your knees and beg God to forgive you for what you’ve done to literature and culture during the last thirty years. We need to love God, to pray, and to seek out his will for humankind, in our day and time. Not as an academic “idea” or theory, but as a reality in our inmost heart and soul. We need to return to life the serious purpose that only a religious, spiritual vision provides, though pedants think it’s their raison d’etre to strip young adults of it should they present upon entry into college. This change of heart is needed not merely in the university, but rather throughout modern, Western society, indeed East as well as West. I am arguing not for a simplistic return to Christianity or any one of the great religions, but to what lies universally at the core of all of them–the Divine Being beyond the ability of the human intellect to fully understand, but within our ability to experience through prayer and worship. Then, literature might again offer a vision worth studying.
On the American English department, also see my post For All Humanity.