If you didn’t know any better, you might think that the main thing conservatives learn in college English classes is how to complain about college English classes.
Shortly before his recent and untimely death, conservative entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart reminisced about the English and American studies classes he took as an undergraduate in the late '80s and early '90s. Those classes, he said in an interview with the National Review Online, were representative of "any humanities department, USA." Going into them, he had expected to read "the Founding Fathers" along with authors like "Mark Twain": stuff he assumed would offer a 'benign approach to the American experience." But he was shocked, shocked, that his courses did not offer that "benign approach."
Now, it’s not clear what parts of Mark Twain that Breitbart expected to be "benign." His ruthless critiques of the slave system in Pudd’nhead Wilson? His disgust with organized religion in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? His vocal opposition to American foreign policy as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League? It seems possible Breitbart accidentally confused Mark Twain the guy with Mark Twain the boat, at Disneyland. (Which is, admittedly, a pretty benign pleasure cruise.)
But the real problem, Breitbart continued, was that he "was hearing the words 'deconstruction' and 'semiotics' a bit too many times." He eventually concluded English classes weren’t really English classes. Instead, they were classes in — ominous pause — "cultural Marxist theory."
Dissatisfaction with college English classes has long held a special place in the conservative imagination. In perhaps the earliest modern example, William F. Buckley Jr. devoted his first book to criticizing liberal orthodoxy at Yale University in the late 1940s. Because "the field of English literature and poetry" was one in which “values are heavily involved,” he declared, the English classroom was especially prone to “value-inculcation.” (Needless to say, he didn’t seem to think it inculcated good values.)
Since then, a number of right-leaning writers haven’t been able to resist the urge to generalize, to speculate about what goes on, in English classes. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has claimed that in English classes, the "study of literature as an art form" has been entirely replaced by "Theory," presumably of the "cultural Marxist" variety. Michael Ellsberg thinks that the type of writing taught in an English class is so "formulaic" that "passable versions of it can be produced automatically by a computer program." Similarly, Judith Halberstam, an English professor who wouldn’t otherwise agree with Breitbart about anything, has declared that English professors aren’t really "doing" English anymore. Bruce Fleming also thinks that college English classes aren’t really teaching English, just a parade of isms -- "structuralism, deconstruction, Foucauldianism, and multiculturalism" — that distract from a different, and somehow more authentic, program of study.
The more theatrical of these Cassandras try to link what they assume is the content of an English class to an overall decline in English as a college major. William M. Chace, former president of Emory and Wesleyan, attributes a decline in the number of English majors to changes in the content of the English classroom. "No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature," he declares. Like Breitbart, Chace thinks the problem is that English professors just aren’t doing English anymore. Instead of "English or American literature," he writes, classes are now filled with non-literary subjects like "comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust." (Because everyone knows survivors of the Holocaust never wrote literature. Take that, Elie Wiesel, you cheap hack!)
It's true that the percentage of undergraduates majoring in English has declined over the last 40 years. Chace makes much of the fact that English majors composed 7.6 percent of the undergraduate population in 1971, and only 3.9 percent in 2004 — a decline of nearly 50 percent. But in fact, English’s current popularity is actually closer to its historical norm now than it was 30 years ago. It’s the early 1970s that were the anomaly, not today.
All American universities expanded dramatically in the aftermath of World War II. From 1945 to 1975, undergraduate enrollments increased by almost 500 percent. This growth was unprecedented, but also unrepeatable. In the grand scheme of things, though, it was just a temporary blip. Degrees in all of the liberal arts — not just English — declined from 1900 to 1945, then grew from 1945 to about 1973, and then began to decline again.
So it’s simply not true that curricular changes caused a decline in the popularity of English as a major. After all, the percentage of mathematics degrees fell over the same period by about 66 percent. And they don’t teach much "cultural Marxist theory" in math courses. (Probably.)
But what’s interesting about this latest flock of lit-crit Chicken Littles is not that they’re saying anything that’s actually true, but that people think it could be true.
There are at least two things going on here. The conservative dislike for English classes depends on ill-informed generalizations about the day-to-day business of the English classroom. But it also depends on an assumption that the day-to-day business of the profession of English is somehow not the business of the members of that profession.
To put it another way, a guy like Andrew Breitbart would never have thought to assume he knows what happens in all of the hundreds of classes nationwide in, say, cardiac surgery. And he would never have tried to inform a professor of surgery about the proper content of a course in surgery. Yet he had and others have no problem confidently stating that they know what happens in all English classes, and that they also know what should happen.
The first of these critiques — that all English classes, everywhere, are doing a particular thing uniformly — is the hardest to rebut, mostly because it's such an insane critique in the first place. There are nearly 2,400 four-year colleges and universities in America, and the vast majority of them offer some sort of education in English language and literature. That means there are tens of thousands of English courses every year. I don’t know what goes on in all those classes any more than Breitbart did or anyone else does. But I will say that their generalizations don’t ring true in the slightest.
Every English literature class I have ever taken, taught, or observed has spent the vast majority of its time on exactly what all these writers claim is missing: the study of literature. In my experience, English classes do pretty much what they’ve always done. Students read literature closely, and then talk about how it works and what it means. The courses I teach in American literature today contain pretty much the same authors you would have expected 20 or 30 years ago: Twain, Emerson, Dickinson, Douglass, Melville, Wharton, and so on. Of course, people teach some newer authors, too (Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo tend to show up often), and some authors are not taught quite as frequently (D.H. Lawrence, for instance), but English departments are not eternal guardians of a frozen literary heritage. They change a little over time, sure, but they still do what you’d expect.
For that matter, Breitbart’s English departments did pretty much what you’d expect, too. He had to take two semesters of American literature at Tulane University, and as Mark Howard and Alexander Zaitchik have reported, students in those courses were assigned to read Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Hawthorne, Stowe, and so on. Not much "cultural Marxist theory," in other words.
I'd venture to guess that this basic classroom focus on individual literary works is far more common than not. If you like, you can check for yourself. Just type "English literature syllabus site:.edu" into Google, without the quotation marks, and see what people around the country are teaching in their English classes.
But this still leaves the other problem, about who determines the proper content of a college classroom. Even if English professors were to stop teaching Shakespeare, or start teaching nothing but “cultural Marxist theory” (whatever that is), those changes would nevertheless be a result of the normal practices of the profession of English. If such a thing were ever to happen, it would be because new knowledge had been formed, new books and articles written, new best practices established. This does not mean that English is an intellectually bankrupt profession, but rather simply that it is a profession, and a profession is defined by the decisions of its members.
When conservatives declare that English classes don’t teach literature anymore, what they’re really trying to do is deprofessionalize the profession of college-level English. In a profession, such as law or medicine or academia, the members of that profession have the ultimate verdict on its practices, credentialing process, and knowledge base. Cardiac surgeons — and not conservative commentators, journalists, or the government — have the final say over the norms and practices of cardiac surgery. Finance professors have the final say over the norms and practices of the academic study of finance.
And English professors have the final say about the content of a college English class. For someone to pretend otherwise, even if that someone is an English professor, is to suggest that an English class somehow exists apart from the practices of the English professors teaching that class. You can't complain about English professors not teaching real English because what English professors teach is real English — even if you think it shouldn’t be.
So people don’t need to be worried that we’re witnessing the "death of English" as a result of English professors not teaching literature. First of all, it's not true. English majors still read Shakespeare, Twain, Emerson, Austen, Milton, and all the rest.
But even if such a thing were true, the sky still wouldn’t be falling, simply because of basic professional norms. After all, no one worries that professors of medicine aren’t teaching students how to use leeches like they did in the Middle Ages.
But one thing these sorts of attacks on the content of the English classroom tell us is that English, far from being irrelevant, apparently matters a lot to conservatives. Decades after the "culture wars" of the 1980s, conservatives and commentators of all stripes are still using the English classroom as a convenient shorthand for American universities as a whole.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to do so honestly. English departments still teach all the stuff you remember them teaching. But English departments are also composed of members of the profession of academic English, and professions are, like it or not, self-regulating.
After all, if someone like Andrew Breitbart can’t tell a dentist he should pull your teeth, then he also shouldn’t tell English professors they should teach The Fountainhead.
Stephen J. Mexal is assistant professor in the department of English, comparative literature, and linguistics at California State University at Fullerton.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading