Toxic English Departments and the Students Who Now Avoid Them
The decline in the study of undergraduate English proves the proposition that the Left ruins everything it touches There has been a precipitous drop in the number of English majors across the country, and our "progressive" professors have only themselves to blame.
The National Center for Education Statistics publishes its annual Digest of what undergraduates study. In 1970 there were roughly 840,000 undergraduate degrees conferred in the United States. Of these approximately 64,000 were degrees in English Literature and Language. This made it the fourth most popular major across the country.
Since 1970 there has been a vast increase in the number of undergraduate degrees conferred: over two million in 2020. Yet, despite this huge influx of students, the number of degrees in English has dropped to just over 38,000 in 2020.
If confronted with this decline in student interest, the professors would no doubt point to economic and vocational concerns and to our crass American culture. The unstated premise for this rationale, which is ludicrous on its face, would be that there were no economic or vocational concerns then, and that American culture was somehow less crass in 1970. The professors would shrug their shoulders and say, "It's not our fault."
When we were undergraduates at Kenyon College, it had an English Department as formidable as any. The professors were serious about literature, its criticism, and the quality of our written expression. They weren't interested in nurturing resentment, grinding axes, psychotherapy, or the creation of like-minded political cadres. The materials were chosen based on what Mathew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said in the world." We read the best and worked to understand the authors as they understood themselves. English was a very popular major.
Once upon a time, more than a dead white male (public domain image)
By the late 1970s, the barbarians were at the gates in English departments across the country. The invasion of the likes of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man was well underway. English majors were subjected to mind-numbing theories of literature and criticism such as deconstruction, queer and racial theories, and those have now evolved into the cult of "diversity, equity, and inclusion." When choosing the materials to be studied, what now matters most is the race, ethnicity, gender, and gender-bending qualities of the author instead of the quality of the work itself; trendy political points, not beauty and aesthetic accomplishment. You can now get that degree without bothering with the profundities and beauties of the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain, or Faulkner.
Here is what now passes as a semester course in English literature (English 214) at Kenyon: (Trigger Warning: Take a deep breath and try to get through this; it won't be easy.)
"How do you read gender? How do you read sexuality? How and in what ways have gender and sexuality been written and rewritten? This course serves as an introduction to queer and transfeminist theories and practices in gender and sexuality studies. Conceptualized through its intersections with race, ethnicity, coloniality, class, and ability, the sex/gender system of oppression has long served as a taxonomizing apparatus. And yet, the literary, in league with anticolonial, civil rights, and LGBTQ social movements, not only sheds sharp light on how gender and sexuality are regulated and troubled, but also animates the liberatory potential of imagining embodied relations otherwise. At once world-building and world-shattering, representations of gender and sexuality can leverage critiques against normativity in the same gesture as they bow to reproducing it. Taking our transnational cue from subjugated knowledges and intersectional epistemologies, we’ll constellate the diverging genealogies and methodologies that have shaped the politics and aesthetics as well as the ethics and affects (sic) of gender and sexuality. Against the traffic of binary opposition, we’ll index the possibilities of intimacy and performativity that determine desiring subjects and their objects. As a class collective, our aim will be to read and reread as well as write and rewrite texts that interrogate and complicate how gender and sexuality, as contested sites of pleasure and pain, are embodied and experienced. The geographic and generic focus of this course may vary; for more information, students should contact the instructor. This counts toward the methods requirement for the major and an elective for the women's and gender studies major. Open only to first-year and sophomore students. Prerequisite: ENGL 103 or 104."
Given that the course is open to only freshmen and sophomores, it must be considered an important introduction to the study of English by the warrior geniuses who created the department's curriculum. This course evidently creates the lens through which the rest of the English curriculum must be viewed. Otherwise, why limit it to the youngest students?
The course obviously has little or nothing to do with literature, English or otherwise. A place in the abnormal psychology curriculum might be more appropriate. To the extent that there is anything offered remotely resembling literature, it is merely a prop for asserting grievances and raising a peculiar consciousness. When considering this class, and assuming that a student can wade through the stupid academic jargon, what awaits that student but a taste of Maoist re-education. One imagines this professor aping Strother Martin's prison warden in Cool Hand Luke ordering the inmates, "you gonna get your minds right!"
The likes of Kenyon's renowned figures John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Robert Lowell, and Charles Coffin must be rolling in their graves at the thought of literature as "leverag[ing] critiques against normativity," or serving "the taxonomizing apparatus." We will bet they never "constellate[d]" or taught a "class collective." (Lefty activists just love that word, "collective.") But those former professors actually cared about literature.
Annual tuition at Kenyon is approaching $80,000. Assuming that this course is one-eighth of a student's studies for that year, sitting and listening to this twaddle would cost the parents approximately $10,000 (assuming no student loans that Biden can forgive and fob off on some poor factory worker). That the College would be proud to highlight this trendy course on its website, among its courses that feed racial and ethnic strife, says a lot about the reigning orthodoxies on the country's campuses. There is no mystery why students now avoid this major; and they are right to do so. Can it be long before we should say the same thing about what used to be a wonderful liberal arts curriculum?