Wednesday, December 07, 2005

English Lit: Still Dead

Here is a very strong article about the surprisingly quick decline of American English departments. I can't really disagree with much- the article details why I went into History and gave up my dreams of being an English Lit grad student. Let's just say that it has been a long, sad decline from Northrop Frye to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

My favorite line:
"Humanistic education is a slow process of assimilation, without any clear real-world point to it."

As it should be. I agree with her that English departments have largely abandoned their traditional role- the close reading of texts with questions of truth, beauty, transcendence and spirituality in mind- and that a shocking number of English professors even display outright hostility to literature. She has identified the problems within the profession, even if this sort of criticism is the current version of picking off very large fish in very small barrels with a high-powered rifle.

When the yearly wringing of hands comes around, people who criticize the profession tend to make the same argument- the humanities are deeply corrupted, lost and confused, and if only it wasn't, all those students who would love to study art and literature closely would. But, how many students are there in today's world who really care more about "lit" than about "getting lit"? Or about "getting rich"? I think these arguments tend to put all the onus on the profession and forget how deeply Philistine this culture has become; and not only deeply Philistine, but fiercely proud of its philistinism.

We should be proud that humanistic study has no clear real-world point to it, and the author clearly is. Instead of trying to make the humanities another arena for "social justice" or whatever it is this week, we should defend the fact that we are here largely to cultivate the self. Humanistic education is raising, and can spiritually deepen the individual. Again, I think that she understands this.

The reason that Philistines like David Horowitz want to micromanage the university is that they feel themselves on an equal level with the Philistines within the university- and they are. In a sense, Horowitz has preserved his New Left contempt for authority as such in his current New Right contempt for authority on the left. But, the reason that he has weight in the current debate is that the Northrop Fryes are all dead, or perhaps in hiding. Academia is a monastic profession, and when it becomes worldly it opens the gates to the barbarians. Why shouldn't we exist solely to make suburban kids think they're smarter than they are? Why is this any less appropriate than teaching English literature as a way to "overthrow the patriarchy"? If we shove the dominant culture, with its love of one damned simplicity after another, why should we cry "McCarthyism" when they shove back?

I'm not convinced that Horowitz is trying to stop our cultural decline into barbarism... in fact, I suspect that he is accelerating it. And, actually, I'm not convinced that anything will stop it at this point. The march of the technocrats and consumers goes on, crushing anything raising in life with an eye fixed on the bottom line. It's sad that academics, the stewards of culture, are so willing to gut their own professions and help out in this looting, but perhaps it doesn't matter what the rats do as the ship sinks. Perhaps, there only need to be a few of us to preserve the sacred knowledge of the past for the future generations of non-barbarians.

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