Who’s Killing the English Major?

English professors, in general, could never write. So long as they were only writing to each other, of course. Furiously gesturing in their kabuki play of academese, they fling words like “intertextuality” and “signifier/signified,” which, if you do not accept their use, you are not part of the club and should suffer the due condescension.

If you want to see Exhibit A, according to Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, look at the new Cambridge History of the American Novel

This book sounds howlingly awful– a 1200-page professorial circle jerk of which the out-of-touch authors dare you to follow a single paragraph. They’re taking the history of the American novel, something for you and me, and implying that it isn’t for us just in how it’s written. I feel no less indignant about this than Epstein does.

Now, the observation that English instructors typically churn out unreadable cinderblocks– thick while being hollow– is not new. Also not new is Epstein’s argument, for which this Cambridge book serves as his evidence: the study of literature for the enrichment and enjoyment thereof has been commandeered by the liberal majority of academics administering art as social medicine– “automatic leftism” being “the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” Read Eskimo feminist poetry, says your typical English prof today, It’s good for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s even good.

Really, in universities, this is the enduring conflict of the past couple of generations. Liberals bemoan the Harold Bloom-ian old guard as elitists who like their canon white and male and unchanging, and conservatives bewail the takeover of all the P.C. post-posties who insist that diversity in art is synonymous with quality.

I’m fascinated by Epstein’s essay. It contains so many double standards that reading it is like walking a hall of mirrors.

English programs, in terms of respectability and popularity, are in serious decay, and Epstein says that it all started once contemporary novels were being taught in college (The reader is to agree that contemporary=terrible or else, my goodness, we’ve lost him already!). Epstein writes:

“With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today.”

The barbarians he names are Kurt Vonnegut, E.L Doctorow, and Allen Ginsberg. Granted, I only like 33% of those guys, but it’s curious to see Epstein criticizing the inaccessibility of the Cambridge authors’ book, then pining for the sentinels of taste from the days of yore who slammed the doors on the unwashed contemporary novelists. He likes the gate but loathes the current gatekeepers.

But wait. I think we’ve left something in this discussion dangerously ignored…

The “Good Books?”

Inevitably we get into the question of what the “good books” are that should be taught, but look down at your feet: we’re in the shit now.

So before we ruin our Crocs forever, let me make a statement. Plenty of lousy books are taught today because they are merely culturally diverse. Just like plenty of lousy books are taught today because they always have been; they’re labeled to be “surviving” or “enduring” as opposed to merely “old.”

Has the liberal professor properly evaluated the Eskimo feminist poetry collection for artistic merit and enjoyability before adding it to the syllabus? Has the conservative professor re-evaluated The Last of the Mohicans lately for the same thing before including it yet again?

No matter which side you take, you are assigning many works for some purpose besides quality. Maybe you don’t like Beowulf (I do, but that’s neither here nor there), but it’s being taught because we’re going to learn about the early Anglo-Saxons, goddammit. Or you don’t like The House of Spirits, but you know what, we’re going to learn about Latin-American political history, goddammit.

The point is, you are much more likely to perceive an agenda behind the curriculum if you don’t enjoy the books. And that agenda, you will usually conclude, is a misguided one.

Oh, God, This Has Gotten Political

I like to think that professors and thinkers belonging to both camps first got into literary study from a shared passion for the written word, not because it was an instrument for social change or the reinforcement of traditional values (though those are usually secondary objectives that educators pick up along the way). The Book was the thing.

Epstein would have you believe that he is on the side of the angels, that his is the argument championing The Book, and the agenda-driven academics running the show are the killjoys constraining its value to whatever it says about race, class, or gender. I don’t think his opposition would see it that way. For many of the more liberal professors, enjoyment of The Book may very well be the fact it presents a minority perspective, or questions tradition, or is just plain different. Maybe the fact it is written by Eskimo women is why they love it.

Regardless, they’re teaching the book in relation to other interests, which Epstein sees as folly.

What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

What he sees as the dilution of a study is in reality, at least by intention, a multi-faceted campaign to take books and discuss their connection to the world around us. I think we’re all aware of the stigma that English majors battle on a regular basis, which is that their field of interest is woefully inapplicable to real life (and this battle they regularly lose). This context-based approach that works to emphasize the relevance of literature–be it to pop culture, sexuality, politics, globalization, etc.– is a response to the larger student concern.

Does this show a lack of faith in the timelessness and appeal of great books themselves to fill the class rosters? That’s a valid criticism. But it isn’t the touchy-feely interdisciplinary shift in the curriculum that’s been killing the popularity of the English program. It’s the world, for God’s sake. What Epstein is fingering as the gunman is really the bumbling EMT who arrived on the scene to administer the shock paddles in the wrong place.

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The Problem With Required Reading (Now That I No Longer Must Read It)

I used to think the best books are the ones that compel you to say the most about them. I was recently reminded that they can also render you nearly speechless. With that in mind, here comes the shortest book review I’ve written on Thwok! so far:

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

Wait... foreword by Susan Sontag?

Wait... foreword by Susan Sontag?

Holy. Shit. Juan Rulfo, I want to hug you.

I think illuminating the particulars of Pedro Paramo would tarnish the experience significantly for those who’ve yet to read it. I instead invite anyone to read the synopsis, and, if it strikes any cord of interest, hesitate not a day to read it.

Moving On

I discovered this book in the store on a “Required Reading” table for such-and-such high school. This novel seemed like such an odd work for the traditional high school canon; usually when someone wants to teach the topic of Mexican spirituality, they’re falling back on Bless Me Ultima. I am ever grateful to the mysterious teacher who assigned Pedro Paramo because I’d have never happen upon it otherwise.

But now I think back on the fact that the book was “Required Reading,” and I’m torn. While it’s an inspired choice on the part of the mysterious educator, I don’t think teaching Pedro Paramo to high school students is a good idea. This has nothing to do with its subject matter or quality but merely the way the book ought to be enjoyed.

There’s a Billy Collins poem that says this better than I can, but I’ll try anyway.

In some ways, I’ve had to re-educate myself on how to enjoy literature. For high school and college, where the grade is the thing, reading isn’t a stimulating pastime but a formulaic survival skill.

I had to bury my mandibles into a novel like a deer tick until I grew fat with its allusions and extended metaphors. Timelines and geneology charts for the characters were referred to. Sparknotes and pinkmonkey.com were consulted.

At the end of the process the novel became an obstacle, an adversary, and God forbid the thing was magical-realist, or surrealist, or absurdist — a work that, at times, I wasn’t supposed to fully understand. I hated Faulkner. I wanted to break a pool cue on him.

Reading literature outside of college/high school changes everything. The pressure’s off. You let the work affect you only as it may, you involve yourself in it only as you would, and your relationship with the author isn’t jeopardized by your need for him/her to be wholly understandable by Thursday’s exam.

How do you test a high school student on the objective details of a surrealistic work? A book that you’re supposed to be lost in sometimes in order to appreciate it? One that affects you in ways you likely lack the verbal gymnastics to describe? It’s like asking the kid to summarize the plot of a David Lynch film, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. And it misses the point of the work.

Sure, you can have them discuss the book, and do so in essay form. Even then, you’re not eliminating the grade bugaboo that corrupts the blooming of appreciation.

Hold On.

Maybe the idea of teaching a surrealistic novel isn’t what bothers me. Can it be the idea that merely a book I love is being taught in classrooms? This is a thing of mixed feelings as it is. We all have a favorite novel that we’d impel everyone else to read, but at the same time we wouldn’t allow an English teacher within 500 feet of it, to risk the novel being ruined for others by a noxious cloud of pedantry.

I feel just this way about The Great Gatsby.

So perhaps that’s why I’m so bothered by Pedro Paramo’s being a “school text.” I want the tree frog to spring about in your backyard; I don’t recommend killing the thing in a classroom dissection.