The Suicide of English

In The Weekly Standard, James Seaton has a review of the new edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism that illuminates a basic mistake the discipline of literary studies committed many years ago. Here is the second paragraph of Seaton’s review:

Despite its length, the new NATC is most revealing in its omissions, the most significant of which occurs in the title. The NATC claims to deal with ‘theory,’ not with ‘literary theory’ and with ‘criticism,’ not ‘literary criticism.’ One cannot help but be impressed by the effrontery expressed by the deletion of the qualifying adjective. The strategic omission of ‘literary’ intimates (without explicitly declaring) that English professors who use the NATC are equipped to provide guidance to all those who employ any sort of theory, presumably including their colleagues in the social sciences, and even in physics and chemistry. Such pretension has not been seen since the heyday of the Hegelian system, which claimed the intellectual authority to give the law to every particular science and discipline, from physics to history and everything in between. ‘Theory’ with a capital ‘T’ deserted philosophy with the demise of Hegelian idealism early in the 20th century, but it seems to have reappeared in the unlikely precincts of the English department.’

The point gets to the heart of how literary studies changed over the course of the 1980s and 90s. In a word, much of the field stopped being “literary”—or at least it claimed such. English professors branched out into media, cultural studies, popular and mass culture domains, and several other non-literary fields, and they pursued non-literary themes of race, sexuality, imperialism, the environment, etc.

It was a suicidal move. The resulting courses they taught and books they wrote may have had their surface appeal, incorporating lively materials and controversial topics into their work. But academic disciplines have a higher bar to hurdle than liveliness and topicality. They have to meet canons of inquiry and argument that presume lengthy and rigorous training of people accredited to practice in the field. People who have undergone that training don’t respect, and don’t like, others broaching their materials but lacking the training to do so responsibly. Film scholars disdain English professors who write about film but don’t know much about the technology of filmmaking circa 1930 and 1940 and 1950. Sociologists who study mass culture disdain English professors who write about advertising but don’t know anything about the finances of it.
In a word, English professors who expanded their focus came off as dilettantes. Once they dropped literary matters from the center of their aim, they lost their disciplinary grounding. Whatever thrills they gained by relinquishing those been-there-done-that canonical literary works and sallying into video and empire and the like, their standing on campus plummeted. Thirty years ago, no university could claim top status without a top English department. That is no longer true.


  • 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.

    View all posts

One thought on “The Suicide of English”

  1. Mr. Bauerlein,
    Even the comparison with Hegel underestimates the presumptuousness of “theory” in English departments. I’m not a Hegelian, but at least Hegel’s system aimed at an encyclopedic understanding of everything rooted in a kind of logic. Literary theory eschews even logic in favor of judgments in accordance with a set of orthodox sentiments. Indeed, “theory” in contemporary literature departments is little more than a posture adopted toward the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *