What Future for English Lit?

Many critical observers of humanities education believe that various left-leaning trends such as multiculturalism and cultural relativism become stronger the higher you rise on the education ladder. In graduate school, the focus is relentless in one seminar after another, with students composing thousands of dissertations each year that presume group identity outlooks as a matter of professionalism. Step down to the undergraduate major and the focus thins out a bit, although special topics courses and senior seminars gravitate in the same direction. Freshman comp classes often follow left-wing themes, too, but the nuts-and-bolts practice of fixing commas and revising verbs usually prevails. Drop down to high school and fashionable relativist postures diminish even further as teachers struggle to get 11th-graders simply to understand the opening section of a Faulkner novel.
This map is largely correct, except for the leadership of organizations representing each group. At the CCCC conference, for instance, you find more trendy topics and edgy left-wing theses represented than are represented in actual classrooms across the land. And in publications of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which represents English teachers in middle and high schools, you find the same thing. Most high school English teachers go into the field because they liked their 12th-grade English class and discovered a particular aptitude for teaching literature. They love Emily Dickinson poems, and they enjoy passing them along to 17-year-olds.
For NCTE, however, such motives are not so simple and praiseworthy. In fact, the preference English teachers in general have for Shakespeare. Austen, Whitman, and Fitzgerald is downright questionable.

That’s the conclusion one must draw from a statement in NCTE’s response to the Core Standards project. The project, sponsored by Chief Council of State School Officers (CCSSO), aims to craft national standards for K-12 in math and English Language Arts. Full information appears here. A few draft versions have come out over the last year, and each time NCTE has composed a response with recommendations for revision.
I’ve been part of the project, and each time I’ve pressed CCSSO to include more cultural and historical knowledge related to English (for instance, major periods and movements of English and American literary history). Some of those suggestions have been incorporated, with the latest version going so far as to ask that “students gain a reservoir of literary and cultural knowledge.”
NCTE finds the cultural literacy emphasized in the document problematic. In its latest response) appears one statement worth a close examination:
“Throughout the document, references to mythology or classical literature are numerous. Our concern here is that most references seem narrow and imply that literature representing Western thought is privileged in some way.”
Just consider the full implications of that statement. Think of the educational model that follows when Socrates, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Newton, Locke, Rouseeau, Jefferson, Lincoln, Emerson, etc., are not to be “privileged” over thinkers and writers from other traditions. What does it mean to say that we should not favor literature representing ideas on which our politics and culture are based?
In other words, according to NCTE, we shouldn’t prefer anything, even if it means that we must falsify our own history. The Founding Fathers read Plutarch assiduously, but we shouldn’t privilege Plutarch in our classrooms. W. E. B. Du Bois found Shakespeare a vital inspiration in a Jim Crow society, but let’s not ask students to treat Shakespeare so respectfully. Martin Luther King appealed repeatedly to the Declaration of Independence, but don’t get carried away with it. The ideals of American citizenship come out of Athens, the Roman Republic, the Enlightenment, the Bill of Rights, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on, but don’t construct your syllabus in such a way that students come to think that those materials are any better than anything else. . . .
One can only wonder, “In what universe do these people live?”


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

One thought on “What Future for English Lit?”

  1. I understand your frustration and incredulity, Mark, and I don’t underestimate the difficulty of making headway with people who think they don’t need to listen. Nevertheless I think you’re making your stand in the wrong place. The thing to emphasize is not what the Founders read (which included ephemera as well as Plutarch), but why the classic writings were important. The reason can be seen at its clearest in Plato’s *Apology*: literature fosters independent thinking by turning one inward. Now, if this inward turn is the goal of liberal education for citizenship, then your opponents will have a hard time finding works better than the ones you advocate. And even if they did, what would be wrong with that? But the thing to remember about Socrates is that he was transformed from an individual guy into a literary inspiration at a trial, where his fellow-citizens (of a democratic city) judged him criminally out of step with their received ideas. So it isn’t insightful, much less strategically wise, to suggest that our students should receive some culture from the Founders who received it from Plutarch, etc. The Founders make more sense, and are more inspiring, when seen as independent thinkers rather than receivers and transmitters of a body of culture.

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