Literati on the Decline?

Who cares?

It’s a simple question, but one I’ve found to haunt graduate study in English. Is what we do meaningful? What gives it meaning? and Who decides? are three big questions for which I would love to have an answer…but do not.

That’s one reason I’ve chosen “The Decline of the English Department,” by William M. Chace, the recipient of a “Sidney Award” from New York Times columnist David Brooks, for the first ProfoundNet of 2010. This essay examines the wax and wane of the humanities in higher education. Here’s a snippet:

With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

As a disclaimer, I firmly believe that lovers of literature exist not only in higher education or professional classrooms. Nor is it necessary to have a graduate–or even undergraduate–degree in order to appreciate literature.

However, I do think the state of higher education in the humanities reflects certain characteristics of society at large that are troubling.

I agree with many of Chace’s claims. Trends toward utilitarianism or theorization have fragmented and weakened literary studies. In today’s economy, financial considerations are a valid concern in the humanities. And although I am less willing to separate literature from cultural and socio-political concerns, or to isolate British/American literature in a closed curriculum, I too am frustrated by the difficulty of defining literary studies.

Like Chace, I’m also hesitant to promote simple solutions.

With caution and some skepticism, Chace lists changes under consideration in academia: increased emphasis on teaching rather than research for tenure; greater recognition for the teaching of rhetoric and writing; renewed appreciation for literature’s power to inform, to delight, and to persuade; and preservation of literature as a distinct field.

What I would like to see is a treatment of literary study that is diverse but purposeful:

  • That denies neither the influence of biography, intent, history, and material culture on writing, nor the way language works outside of authorial intent.
  • That acknowledges the influence of literature on politics, culture, and identity but does not lose sight of its unique properties.
  • That analyzes and theorizes the textual characteristics of literature and culture together but does not deny the pleasure of reading.
  • That seeks to foster thought and growth on an individual level through teaching as well as reading and writing.

In 2010, although I’m realistic enough to keep my expectations limited, I hope to shape my personal studies, as much as possible, with similar aims.

Thanks, Dr. Chace, for a thought-provoking essay.

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