The endangered English major

The latest Saturday essay in the Wall Street Journal goes something like this: the Humanities are dead, and English professors killed them. But the good news, according to Lee Siegel, is that we can resurrect liberal learning now that fewer English majors are bludgeoning the subject matter to death. 50 years ago, 14% of college students were majoring in subjects like English, classics, philosophy, and religion. Today, those students make up just 7% of the college population. This decline, says Siegel, will slow the “academicization of literary art” and “that fig leaf for mediocrity known as ‘theory.’”  Siegel believes we’ll soon get back to actually reading as apart of everyday life and learning, rather than theorizing and deconstructing. “Literature,” says Siegel, “is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”

As one of those rare birds still majoring in literature, I took a special interest in the piece and mostly agree with Siegel’s conclusion. I did find him overly dismissive of the value of a classroom (Try reading Ulysses on your own), but Siegel is right to emphasize that literature is, fundamentally, about the true and the beautiful—something English students and their professors tend to overlook. Conservatives often get worked up about how ideological the study of literature has become—and they’re mostly right—but my biggest concern is the discipline’s sheer randomness.

In my experience, other academic departments seem to have more camaraderie and sense of purpose because students progress together through a logical course sequence: Your lab partner in general chemistry shows up again in organic chemistry II, and the two of you make a habit of swapping notes and sharing knowledge.  That’s harder to accomplish in the humanities when my study of Victorian cultural trends is entirely divorced from a classmate’s focus on, say, contemporary feminist poetry.

Now, obviously the humanities don’t lend themselves to quite such a pedantic approach as the hard sciences, but it would certainly make sense to move chronologically and thematically through the Western canon, if, alas, we were willing to acknowledge that such a canon existed. Instead, the curriculum is a jumbled mess. Blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein writes:

While other disciplines arrange their curricula in graduated sequence, moving from fundamental to advanced and from broad issues to special topics, English scrambles its materials and methods from beginning to end.

I started with a poetry workshop and a seminar on African American literature, then moved backward to English Romanticism, then threw in more poetry, then modernism, followed by American Lit, Victorian Lit, and more modernism. I’m only just getting to Shakespeare and am trying to rearrange my spring schedule to squeeze in Milton. I’m partly to blame for the haphazardness, since I designed most of this course progression myself. Then again, it would have been nice to have the English Department offering more structured suggestions or even (gasp!) requirements so that I wasn’t just freewheeling through the course catalog.

At least that’s how it works in the so-called STEM departments, who have managed to wrest most of today’s respect and university resources. I’m not arguing that we cede all authority to the STEMs, especially since all of the hype about math and science learning is likely evidence of our society’s technocratic bias and colleges’ inability to effectively defend the liberal arts. But English professors surely share some of the blame. Without insisting that all literature majors read Shakespeare, they have failed to demonstrate that there is some literary knowledge that is absolutely worth knowing and, by extension, worth protecting.