Will English Departments Begin to Fade?

The executive council of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the leading organization for English and foreign-language professors, issued a statement on Wednesday decrying the rising debt levels of college students. Well, sure, who isn’t against student debt? But I think that the MLA statement is more than just pious boilerplate. It’s a statement of panic–that pretty soon both undergraduates and graduate students in language departments and elsewhere in the humanities are going to realize that their degrees are mostly worthless, especially when financed by mountainous loans. The MLA seems to realize that sometime very soon the bottom is going to fall out of all those English departments with their course offerings in such subjects as “Theorizing Intersectionality” and “Insecure: The Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism.” Students will simply vanish from humanities classrooms (many are leaving already), and departments will implode.

The statement read (I’m quoting from Inside Higher Education): “To reduce debt burdens in the future, we call on Congress, state legislatures, and institutes of higher education to calibrate educational costs and student aid in ways that will keep student debt within strict limits. We also call on them to hold in check tuition increases, which often outpace inflation, and to ensure that degree programs allow for timely completion.” I have no idea what Congress or state legislatures can do to “calibrate educational costs and student aid”–although I suspect that what the MLA really means is to extract massive amounts of money from taxpayers for higher education that, coupled with generous loan-forgiveness programs, would make college essentially free, to the students, that is. But the fear on the part of literature professors who may find themselves out of work is palpable in the MLA statement.

On the one hand, I can sympathize with the humanities scholars, sort of. A liberal-arts curriculum isn’t supposed to be business school. A letter accompanying the statement by Russell Berman, a professor of German and comparative literature at Stanford who serves as president of the MLA, states: “College education has aspired to achieve more than the imparting of instrumental job training by instead building students’ creativity, argumentative rigor, and cognitive flexibility–capacities of the mind that might of course contribute to career success but that do not involve the mastery of specific job-related techniques or the attainment of pre-professional accreditation. That goal remains valid.” Nonetheless, Berman points out that “we [literature professors] face a moral obligation to address the career prospects of our students and the economic pressures they will face.” 

All well and good, although Berman doesn’t exactly explain what the professors are supposed to do in order to make majoring in comp lit more appealing to students facing a bottomed-out economy once they have finished their $200,000 educations. I have a suggestion for the literature professors that might help: teach some literature. Teach Goethe and Shakespeare–what they actually say–instead of Marxism, sexism, “intersectionality,” “heterotextuality,” or whatever your pet ideological or fashionable theoretical obsession might be. You might be able to excite your students about what they are reading so much that they will be willing to take a break from all that career preparation. And you will worry less about your academic field disappearing under pressure from your college’s cost-cutting administrators.

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Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

9 thoughts on “Will English Departments Begin to Fade?

  1. They have already declined. Few people take English departments seriously anymore because few people in those departments take English seriously. They don’t see their job as teaching English. Instead, they are highly politicized. At my little college, they don’t even want to be called an English department–they prefer Communications.

  2. How very multicultural of you, Mr. Oliveria. Charlotte Allen comes from a culture that doesn’t understand why one has to go into massive debt to expose oneself to the modern university’s idea of literature. Why don’t you respect her culture? If you want to spend thousand of dollars to have some state-certified intellectual tell you that America and white people suck, fine. It’s your money and your soul. But don’t denigrate others who have a different estimation of the value of what our English Departments are peddling. You show a dismal appreciation for the glories of multicultural. How shameful!

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  3. I don’t see any indication that Charlotte Allen doesn’t believe in “the value of the human soul,” nor do I see any way of knowing how Goethe and Shakespeare would have responded to this twenty-first century blog. It seems to me a little too convenient for Anthony Oliveira to assume that long-dead writers would have joined in on his argumentum ad hominem. More to the point, Ms. Allen doesn’t say that the humanities don’t have value; she just seems to think that a more traditional approach than currently predominates would be better at affirming “the value of the soul.” Given the other pieces I have seen by her, she also apparently thinks that regardless of how intrinsically valuable an education may be if you are going to go deeply in debt to get one you’ve got to have a plan for covering the debt. Good points and snobbery about “bean counting” doesn’t rebut them.

  4. Anthony Oliveira claims Charlotte Allen does not recognize “the value of the human soul”. He seems to have read in the article the opposite of what it actually said. One will learn about the human soul from “Goethe and Shakespeare—what they actually say”–but not from postmodernism, Marxism, etc. It is English departments, not Charlotte Allen, which need to be “convinc[ed] of the value of the human soul”.

  5. Studying art isn’t about “tricking” students into “taking a break” from “all that career preparation.” Why anyone would publish such cynical philistinism under the banner of “minding the campus” is baffling. Must everything be “useful”? Should we reserve no space, in our entire society, for the thorough-going, professional, and sustained consideration of our culture’s literature, of how we as a people and as a species make meaning, without offering paeans to mean-spirited, mean-minded people like Charlotte Allen, who demand that art prove its usefulness by contributing to a bottom-line and an income that recoups on the monetary investment made?
    There is no way to convince Charlotte Allen of the value of Literature departments because the task first requires convincing her of the value of the human soul. Since that cannot be affixed with a market value or a monetary sum, she does not think it exists. Her desire to teach what Goethe and Shakespeare “actually say”, in addition to assuring both men would’ve laughed in her face, betrays her desire not to appreciate art, but to capaciously encapsulate it in some bullet-points, reduce it to its most basic unit of measurement, and move on.
    English departments are, indeed, on the decline. Minds like Charlotte Allen, cramped and lightless, counting beans and sneering at what they don’t understand, are why.

  6. I agree that there’s a lot of silly stuff in English departments — to such a degree that it’s not surprising I’m still unemployed with my English M.A. and humanities Ph.D. 7 years later — but it’s a good sign that someone as conservative as Russell Berman is president of the MLA. His work helped me develop the idea of literary production as a Hayekian spontaneous order, which in turn led me to create Austrian Economics and Literature:
    http://theliteraryorder.blogspot.com

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