‘The Decline of the English Department’

William M. Chace, professor of English and former president of two U.S. universities, tells the sad tale in The American Scholar.

University students who major in business are so misguided: every intelligent and successful businessman or -woman will tell you that a broad knowledge of literature, history, science, people, and the world—in other words, a liberal arts education—is the best preparation for a business career. At the same time, most U.S. colleges and universities have simply given up on the liberal arts.

The only secure bastion of liberal arts education that I know of is St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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5 thoughts on “‘The Decline of the English Department’”

  1. Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon is another example. It has abandoned its business program, and refocused its undergraduate program solely on liberal arts.

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  2. After reading Mr. Chace’s article in The American Scholar, I wrote him the following email and received the reply that appears below.

    Dear Mr. Chace,

    I’ve just read your piece in The American Scholar about the decline of the English Department.

    As a high-school English teacher I long ago concluded that if my students were going to read any of the classic works of literature, it would only be because I taught them—colleges and universities simply weren’t requiring them anymore. Secondary English teachers have not been afflicted with the inanities of arcane critical theories and the evisceration of the canon by socio-political interest groups, but in teaching the classics I have nevertheless put myself in the minority among my peers, simply because in increasing numbers they themselves have never read the great works of Western literature.

    In my first job, in 1980, I taught a course entitled ‘World Literature and Philosophy’, which at one time had been taught in all five high schools in my district. By 1980 only one school still taught it, simply because there were so few teachers who felt inclined and/or qualified to teach it.

    I have been teaching it, in one form or the other, ever since. Every once in a while I attempt to rally the troops with a blog post like ‘Ancient Greece, Modern Readers’ (http://ericmacknight.com/wordpress/?p=126), but for the most part I just do my job.

    The only institution doing its job, as far as I know, is St. John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe), where both the canon and liberal arts education are alive and well. I would like to know of others. Only in such pockets, I fear, will true education survive the new Dark Ages in which commerce is everything.

    Thanks for sounding the call, and fighting the good fight.

    William Chace’s reply:
    Dear Eric MacKnight:

    Thank you for your letter. Of the responses I have received to the essay, yours is the most poignant. I must tell you that I had not fully envisioned the situation you face, for I had assumed (incorrectly) that the problem I was studying was largely confined to higher education. From your report, I now know that it extends to the secondary schools. I do not want to force the analogy, but it does appear that what happened to Latin and Greek some years ago is now happening to other “classics.” I mention such a comparison toward the end of the essay, but, again, I was not fully imagining how extensive the marginalization of important books had become.

    You end your letter by observing that “commerce is everything.” This seems to me the key to understanding the situation. For decades, education seemed largely immune to all the pressures of marketing, commercialization, and profit. It was understood as “exempt,” as if it were a form of private experience that could cultivate character, ethical understanding, and psychological capaciousness. Now education seems to have entered the marketplace and is understood as a utilitarian instrument to be bought and sold. College is stunningly expensive; universities get measured by comparative endowments; students experience higher education as a stepping-stone to something else more important; and educational leaders long ago stopped being intellectual guides and became fund-raisers.

    Yet the books are there. They can be taught and understood. You are doing all you can. I believe that, at the end, the power of the literature will remain.

    I wish you good fortune in your teaching and, again, I thank you for writing.

    Bill Chace

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  3. Mr. MacKnight, a fellow English teacher myself, I have been following your blog postings for quite a while and I must say that your reading of the predicament faced by secondary English teachers reminds me of E.M. Forster’s 1940 essay “Does Culture Matter?” in which he portrays a world where people don’t want books or art. Forster asks of his industrious neighbor: “Ought we to bother him?” with our arms, as it were “full of parcels, and say to him `I was given these specially to hand on to you . . . Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James. . . I’m afraid they’re a little heavy but you’ll love them in time . . .'” Forster’s answer is yes, of course; but “What is needed,” he suggests, “is to let one’s light so shine that men’s curiosity is aroused, and they ask why Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James should cause such disproportionate pleasure.” He believes if we show our joy, we will persuade.
    Your crusade in preserving the simple joy of literature is much admirable and some of us, in remote parts of the world, feel much inspired. Thank you.

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    1. Chiranjeet ,

      Thanks so much for your very kind comments. I’m humbled to have such a discerning reader and delighted to learn about the Forster essay, which I will now search out.

      Best wishes in your teaching!

      Eric

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