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Perhaps as an undergraduate you read Oscar Wilde’s mirthful, satiric essay “The Critic as Artist.” Subtitled “Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything,” it contains some of Wilde’s most memorable quips and witticisms:

  • An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.
  • When people agree with me, I always feel that I must be wrong.
  • There is no sin except stupidity.
  • Yes: the public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius.

Ironically, it’s the essay’s major source of satire—the primacy of criticism over the art that it interprets and evaluates—that has, to a surprising extent, been realized. For nearly a century, academic critics of literature—from I. A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks and Lionel Trilling to Derrida, de Man, Foucault and Lyotard, to Judith Butler, Stanley Fish and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak today—have been regarded, in large parts of the discipline, as more important than the literature they write about.

Of course, the rise of academic theorists and college-based critics occurred at the very time that public readership of academic literary criticism has fallen precipitously. Maybe that isn’t an accident or coincidence. It seems like an ideal time for a stocktaking. Such an assessment has now appeared.

If there is a more thoughtful, penetrating, insightful, trenchant, acerbic, scathing or original analysis of a scholarly discipline than John Guillory’s Professing Criticism, I have yet to see it. Partly a history and in part a sociology of English as a profession, Professing Criticism is an extraordinary book, truly a landmark work of scholarship and interpretation, without a doubt the most important intellectual and sociocultural study of a humanities field that I have encountered.

It should be read not only by the English professoriate, but by its counterparts in art and music history, history and philosophy. Consider it a red alert, a cautionary tale, a fire bell in the night and an omen and admonition about how professionalization, specialization and bureaucratization can damage a field of study, even as it has benefited those with tenure, especially those who teach at the more selective institutions.

The book covers a host of topics:

  • How fluency in English literature became a hallmark of an educated person and why it has lost that privileged status.
  • How English became an established part of the college curriculum and why it has recently lost ground and has increasingly been reduced to a service department.
  • How literary criticism and close reading, as opposed to rhetoric, philology, belles-lettres oratory and literary history, became the central defining features of English as a profession.
  • How the English department became responsible for freshman composition and whether students might be better served by different approaches to writing instruction.
  • How lay and academic readers differ in their approach to literature and whether it is possible for English professors to connect to a broader common readership.
  • How graduate training in English might evolve to better serve those without academic job prospects.

Readers will enjoy many of the fascinating historical details scattered through the book. They will learn, for example, how lower-status institutions, including mechanics institutes, were the first to embrace the study of vernacular literature, which remained long resisted at the more established colleges (even as undergraduates formed their own literary societies).

Guillory also underscores the rapidity with which the Latin- and Greek-based classical curriculum collapsed and how quickly it was replaced by a radically new educational model emphasizing departments, electives, essay examinations, seminars, faculty research, the study of the social and natural sciences and the new professions (including architecture, business, engineering, journalism and more)—all while maintaining a veneer of continuity.

Unique in its chronological and topical range and distinctive in its fairmindedness and analytical sophistication, this book addresses a multitude of issues that could scarcely be more timely. Among the many questions it explores are these:

  • How and why did English, which during the 1960s and 1970s was among the most attractive majors, lose its popularity?
  • How have English departments responded to the canon wars, the globalization of Anglophone literature and the campaigns to decolonize the canon and embrace cultural criticism (not just literary criticism)—and has their reaction undercut the rigor and quality of the education and training the departments provide?
  • Why did increasing numbers of English faculty, especially at the more elite institutions, retreat from their earlier role—to illuminate particular works of English literature and literary history—and embrace high theory and treat their scholarship as a form of political activism (while, in Guillory’s view, greatly exaggerating their political impact)?
  • To what extent, in a bid to sustain enrollments, should English departments focus on contemporary prose fiction or extend their purview to encompass film and popular culture or should they maintain a focus on literary masterpieces and canonical figures (old and newer) and upon the history of English literature?
  • Should research and scholarship by English faculty conform to the same model as that in the biological, brain, physical and social sciences—evaluated first and foremost by quantity and citations—or might it take different forms?

Among the many arguments that Guillory advances, six deserve special mention:

1. The purpose and value of research in English. Is the English department’s primary research function to explicate, contextualize and formally and critically analyze works of literature? Or is it to recount the history of literature in English or to study language—its etymology, morphology, syntax, phonetics and semantics? If so, how does it differ from linguistics?

Or is the department’s key research responsibility to study the history of books and readership or cultural discourse, especially literature’s role in expressing, reflecting and shaping values and cultural categories? Is it to offer insights into the human condition? Or cultivate new reading strategies? Or lay bare the biases and stereotypes embedded in literature and expose the workings of power and the politics of interpersonal and social relations? Or understand how readers process literature? Or is its function to generate theory, reveal that literature is a self-referential web of linguistic signs or criticize society, uncover ignored or marginalized voices and examine identity construction?

Guillory wants his readers to seriously ponder the limits of the analogy with scientific research. He points to his discipline’s lack of clarity about the utility of literary research and even its subject matter (that is, how far it should stray from its traditional domain of poetry, plays, novels and literary essays). If literary scholarship isn’t progressive in a scientific or medical sense, then, he suggests, it might take alternate forms, for example, through alternate formats that extend beyond the book or scholarly essay or modes that speak to public audiences outside the academy.

2. English’s declining cultural capital. A degree in English once carried considerable cultural cachet. It signified intellect, style, taste, sophistication and refinement and represented the truest alternative to a vocational or practical education. There was a time when a literary education was prerequisite for a voice in the public sphere. An English B.A. wasn’t merely an entryway into certain jobs, for example, in publishing or journalism, but into a certain place in the cultural hierarchy and structures of power. Today, when just 39 students a year graduate with an English degree from Harvard, not so much.

Even now, fluency with the vocabulary and critical theories one encounters within the English major connotes status within certain exclusive social and political communities, especially if accompanied by the right college pedigree. But that capital is not what it once was, due to larger structural shifts in the economy, the rising status of STEM degrees and the diminishing place of literature in the culture as a whole.

3. The narrowing—and broadening—of English’s subject matter. Over time, literature departments focused more and more on imaginative or fictional literature and especially on the novel and less on other forms of written and oral expression. Shouldn’t English departments also focus more on language oratory and nonfiction prose? For reasons that include departmental finances, shifting student tastes (including a desire for more “relatability,” relevance and “topicality”) and the growth of non-U.K., non-Irish and non-U.S. Anglophone literature, course offerings increasingly emphasize the post–World War II era.

If in some respects English’s domain has contracted, in other ways it has expanded, with many departments offering courses on film or foreign language texts in translation and proliferating subfields: affect studies, eco-criticism, the digital humanities, disability and animal and sexuality studies, indigenous studies, postcolonial studies and race and ethnicity studies, among others. This subject matter inflation raises a question that Guillory begs departments to wrestle with: Are English departments best served by increasing their reach or should certain modes of expression be left to departments and disciplines that claim special expertise?

4. The displacement of literature by new media as the premier medium for entertainment and cultural reflection. Imaginative literature has contracted in social importance. No longer, for example, is the novel widely regarded as the pre-eminent vehicle for social or psychological analysis or for understanding the human condition. In such circumstances, what is literary study’s social mission? Guillory calls on scholars of literature to develop a more robust theoretical account of literature’s place in an evolving system of media.

5. The growing need to translate and communicate information into communicable knowledge. In today’s data- and statistics-rich society, the ability to explain, condense and convey complex or abstract information clearly and compellingly is more important than ever. English was once the discipline that thought most intensely and penetratingly about how to effectively communicate complicated ideas and technical information and needs to reassert that role and not fob off that responsibility onto poorly paid adjuncts or graduate students.

6. Addressing the ongoing crisis of graduate education. The historic purpose of doctoral education in English was to reproduce the professoriate. But now that the disparity in the numbers of jobs and qualified applicants is likely permanent, how should departments respond? Expanding M.A. programs may increase revenue, but it hasn’t addressed the problem, since many M.A. degree holders then apply to Ph.D. programs. The increase in the number of postdoctoral positions and visiting professorships has allowed departments to artificially raise their placement rates while creating jobs that aren’t technically labeled as adjunct. Meanwhile, the efficacy of training for alternate careers remains unclear.

The internet and the unending job crisis have combined to create a distinct graduate student culture, which Guillory calls the “semi-autonomous professional sphere.” As graduate students recognize, collectively, their unlikelihood of ever obtaining a tenure-track job, a growing number express their collective consciousness through unionization and other forms of activism.

One step forward might be to devise ways to help former students maintain ties to literary study without the structure of graduate school. Might not graduate schools invite former students (and neighboring colleagues at less resourced institutions) to all departmental events? Shouldn’t professional associations do more to integrate these Ph.D.s into their operations? Mightn’t faculty do more to support the “paraliterary” infrastructure of virtual magazines, blogs and websites where literary study is cultivated outside the ivory tower? This, Guillory acknowledges, won’t directly address the jobs crisis, but it will allow more Ph.D.s to participate in the life of the mind.

Much recent criticism of English departments comes the conservative right that decries academic jargon and theorizing and the purported dismissal of the traditional canon, but Guillory’s critique comes from a very different vantage point. His interpretation is heavily influenced by the “outlaw Marxist” sociologist Alvin W. Gouldner’s 1970s studies of the rise of a self-aggrandizing New Class that creates new ideas and knowledge and controls the theoretical and technical expertise that contemporary society depends on. Guillory treats the English professoriate, for all its internal differences and disagreements, as a credentialed speech community that participates in in a shared culture of critical discourse, that helps define what it means to be educated and cultured and that strives to maximize its autonomy, perquisites and cultural capital.

Guillory’s sociological approach strikes me as an impressive and estimable model of interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Such an approach reminds us that the pressures, trends and processes that have exerted such a powerful impact English departments are systemic and that many of these developments are irreversible.

English departments have faced particular criticism as excessively politicized or archaic or as relics of Eurocentrism, nationalism, racism and imperialism. But English is not alone in experiencing disciplinary fragmentation and a loss of focus and coherence. Neither is the English department distinctive in their struggles to attract majors or sustain faculty size. Nor is the English department unique in having to balance coverage, especially chronological sweep, with students’ escalating interest in recent and contemporary literature. All core humanities programs face these challenges, as their raison d’être has been thrown into question and their post-graduation job placement records have been falsely and hastily dismissed.

As Princeton civil war era historian Matthew Karp has shown, in my own field, U.S. history, the number of tenure-track jobs posted each year has fallen from an average of 156 early in the 2010s to under 99 in more recent years, even as the preferred subfields radically shifted, with early and 19th-century American jobs falling by over half and the number of ads in African American, Latino/a and Native American history doubling or tripling as departments strive to diversify their faculty.

My department, indeed, all humanities disciplines, has a lot to learn from Guillory’s book. He suggests that English departments should shed some of their insularity, and I wholeheartedly agree that humanities departments should do much more to reach out to, connect with and embrace their graduates, neighboring faculty and others seriously interested in literature and bring them into a community of learning and conversation.

Dismissed by colleagues in the natural sciences and social sciences as an amateur enterprise, a form of scholasticism, antiquarianism, dilettantism and pedantry, lacking rigorous methods, sufficient and reliable empirical evidence, sophisticated interpretive frameworks or testable hypotheses, the core humanities disciplines are experiencing something more than a loss of majors and tenure-stream faculty. They are experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, intensified by attacks, from those who deride these departments as somehow complicit in perpetuating patriarchy, colonialism, racism, hierarchy and, conversely, from those who regard these disciplines as excessively partisan and political.

But there is a problem more profound than legitimacy: the challenge of reaching audiences beyond the academy. The “professionalized” “academized” humanities risk disconnection from any public other than their students. Humanities faculty quite right fear worry that their scholarship lacks readers and, even worse, value. Thus, the drift toward polemics and political diatribes and relevance. But I don’t think we need to be as doubtful about our value or influence as we currently are. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that vocabularies and concepts born in the academy don’t stay within the ivory tower. They do invariably alter the cultural discourses, values and attitudes of the college educated. That’s not indoctrination; that’s education.

But the ultimate value of the humanities lies not in its utility or its political influence, but its ability to cultivate a richer, fuller, more reflective life—whether this involves developing more sophisticated tastes, aesthetic judgment, historical perspective, philosophic acuity or moral awareness. That’s what thinkers from Aristotle to Montaigne, Burke, Nietzsche and Foucault called “the art of living” and if we don’t teach that, we aren’t fulfilling our historic role.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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