The Corner


How to Stop the Decline of English Departments

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Fewer and fewer college students are choosing to major in English. Professor Duke Pesta, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh laments that and thinks he knows what it will take to arrest that decline. As he writes in today’s Martin Center article,

A major in English was once a serious endeavor masquerading as a frivolous one. Despite the occasional “do you want fries with that?” condescension from business or science students, the study of literature — immersion in its aesthetic, historical, and philosophical contexts — conserved for posterity a reservoir of truth and paid forward for humanity a legacy of beauty that inspired business to philanthropize the arts, and science to technologize our access to the great authors.

Today, a major in English is an increasingly frivolous endeavor masquerading as a serious one.

What has gone wrong? The problem, Pesta argues, is that English Departments have largely been taken over by “progressives” who don’t care much about great literature, but are fixated on leftist politics. You know the type — everything must be analyzed from race, class, and gender angles.

If the people in charge wanted to turn things around (and Pesta isn’t saying they do), there are three big things they could  do.

First, go back to teaching classic books and authors. He writes,

For thousands of years, Western culture defined, evaluated, and accepted certain values and aesthetic experiences as canonical. These values had very little to do with politics, broadly understood, but expounded higher moral understandings and offered deeper insights into human nature. Racial, sexual, and economic biases were never the primary (or secondary or tertiary) criteria by which canon-building occurred.

Second, focus on ideas, not ideologies. Pesta rightly says,

The classics only matter if we give them fair hearing. Across English departments, postmodern reading strategies drown out or shout down original texts and voices, reducing them to strawmen and co-opting them to speak the language of progressivism.

And third, he says that English must reclaim truth, beauty, and morality. Many students, Pesta finds, would find great literature appealing if its intrinsic worth were being discussed.

Pesta closes by quoting C. S. Lewis:

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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