Nationalism and the Decline of English Studies
Also: A first edition "Life of Samuel Johnson," a medieval Deesis, and more.
In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller has a long, sprawling piece on “the end of the English major.” The tagline for the piece is: “Enrollment in the humanities is in free fall at colleges around the country. What happened?” His answer is “everything.” He provides a summary of nearly every reason for the decline of the English major over the past fifty years, accompanied, of course, by seamlessly integrated anecdotes or first-hand observations—this is The New Yorker after all.
Every reason except one, that is. But first, here’s Heller: Students aren’t majoring in English, he writes, because they are majoring in STEM, and they are majoring in STEM because a STEM degree leads to a job and the perception is that an English degree does not.
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STEM disciplines also seem to solve real problems using real “data.” “One of the leading courses at Harvard now,” Heller writes, “is introductory statistics, enrolling some seven hundred students a semester, up from ninety in 2005. ‘Even if I’m in the humanities, and giving my impression of something, somebody might point out to me, “Well, who was your sample? How are you gathering your data?”’ he said. ‘I mean, statistics is everywhere. It’s part of any good critical analysis of things.’” English, on the other hand, is “a joke,” as one student observed.
Students aren’t majoring in English, Heller writes, because they are addicted to technology. Heller speaks to James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia: “Shapiro picked up an abused-looking iPhone from his desk. ‘You’re talking to someone who has only owned a smartphone for a year—I resisted,’ he said. Then he saw that it was futile. ‘Technology in the last twenty years has changed all of us,’ he went on. ‘How has it changed me? I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred Web sites. I’m listening to podcasts.’”
Heller goes on to suggest that while students should be majoring in English because of its turn towards politics over the past fifty years, they aren’t. He writes that we live in “a moment when, by most appearances, the appetite for public contemplation of language, identity, historiography, and other longtime concerns of the seminar table is at a peak”:
“Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past . . . Tara K. Menon, a junior professor who joined the English faculty in 2021, linked the shift to students arriving at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach. At Harvard, as elsewhere, courses that can be seen to approach an idea of canon, such as Humanities 10, an intensive, application-only survey, have been the focus of student concerns about too few Black artists in syllabi, or Eurocentric biases.
“There’s a real misunderstanding that you can come in and say, ‘I want to read post-colonial texts—that’s the thing I want to study—and I have no interest in studying the work of dead white men,’ ” Menon said. “My answer, in the big first lecture that I give, is, If you want to understand Arundhati Roy, or Salman Rushdie, or Zadie Smith, you have to read Dickens. Because one of the tragedies of the British Empire”—she smiled—“is that all those writers read all those books.”
It is precisely because English has reduced literary texts to mere instruments of power and treated the canon as little more than a “tragedy,” as professor Menon puts it, that students have come to view politics as more important than English. This is the bed that English studies has made for itself, but there is almost no awareness of this in the piece other than a passing reference to how “some” believe that “humanities scholarship” has become too focused on the “patriarchy” instead of the pleasure of reading.
Finally, Heller reports, students aren’t majoring in English because the government doesn’t spend enough money on universities in general and the humanities in particular. In 1958, “the National Defense Education Act appropriated more than a billion dollars for education,” Shapiro tells Heller:
“We’re not talking about élite universities—we’re talking about money flowing into fifty states, all the way down. That was the beginning of the glory days of the humanities,” he continued. Near the plummeting end of the parabola, he scribbled “2007,” the beginning of the economic crisis. “That funding goes down,” he explained. “The financial support for the humanities is gone on a national level, on a state level, at the university level.”
“This is also the decline-of-democracy chart,” he said. He looked up and met my gaze. “You can overlay it on the money chart like a kind of palimpsest—it’s the same.”
Except, of course, it isn’t the “decline-of-democracy chart”—or, at least, not in the way Shapiro thinks it is.
One of the things Heller’s piece highlights without registering its significance is how government funding of the humanities during the Cold War was for defending not just “democracy,” as Shapiro suggests, but American democracy. The funding was for works and research that extolled American “ideals”—that supported, in one way or another, the American “way of life,” the American people, the American nation (not that writers, of course, used the money to do this). Yet, many professors today, like Shapiro, lament this decline in funding but show no interest in—and are even opposed to—how our literature expresses something about what it means to be an American.
Rightly or wrongly, there has always been some connection between building nations and supporting national literatures. The study of national literatures in modern languages is very new—a little over 100 years old in English—and coincided with the rise of the modern nation state. The two are linked, and the decline of nationalism—or a sense of national identity—over the past fifty years certainly seems to have something to do with the decline of interest in national literatures.
Heller notes that literary studies are in decline across the West: “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by seventeen per cent, Townsend found . . . The trend mirrors a global one; four-fifths of countries in the Organization for Economic Coöperation reported falling humanities enrollments in the past decade.”
This is certainly the case in Switzerland and the UK. According to the Swiss Office of Statistics, the number of students majoring in French language and literature has declined by more than 50% in the past 20 years—from 1,851 French majors in 2001 to 822 in 2021. The same is true of German majors, which went from 2,205 in 2001 to 1,146 in 2021. In the UK, the study of English is generally down, though perhaps not as drastically as the study of national languages and literatures is in Switzerland.
But one country that seems to be bucking the trend is France. In 2006, there were 39,975 French majors in French universities. In 2021, fifteen years later, the number of French majors was only down slightly to 32,649. This downturn only happened recently. In 2016, there were still a few over 36,000 French majors. France has a much stronger view of national identity than many of its European neighbors and a much stricter policy of integration. Perhaps this high view of the importance of French identity has something to do with the relative resilience of French studies in French universities.
I only have time to go into this briefly here (I plan to develop into an essay at some point), but one argument that T. S. Eliot makes in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is the connection between literature and the feeling of being “not merely a citizen of a particular nation, but a citizen of a particular part of his country, with local loyalties.” Eliot had a high view of cultural exchange—he argued strongly in favor of diverse cultures coming into contact, even conflict, with each other in various ways—but also recognized that for a literature to flourish, it must have a connection to a people, who, in turn, see themselves in the work. Is the decline of interest in literature in modern languages really just the result of the ubiquity of the iPhone and the 25% decrease in government funding? Or could it have something to do with the near total abandonment of regional and national cultures among the international elite in favor of a border-free, interconnected one-world state that attempts to obliterate all distinctions between peoples and places to which literature has always been naturally connected?
In other news, you can buy a first edition Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), among other Johnson-related items, at this auction. Thanks to Doug Schoppert for the tip!
A rare, embroidered Deesis has been discovered in Russia: “The discovery was made during construction works for the Moscow-Kazan high-speed highway, where archaeologists found a medieval settlement covering an area of 8.6 acres and an associated Christian cemetery. Excavations have exhumed 46 graves, one of which contained a woman aged between 16 to 25 years of age, who was buried with an embroidered Deisis depicting Jesus Christ and John the Baptist.”
In The London Review of Books, William Davies rails against the “reaction economy”: “Our public sphere is frequently dominated by events you could call ‘reaction chains’, whereby reactions provoke reactions, which provoke further reactions, and so on. Last year’s Oscars ceremony is remembered for just such a reaction chain. When the host, the comedian Chris Rock, made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, her husband, Will Smith, strode up on stage and slapped Rock in the face on live television. For several days afterwards, countless commentators, celebrities and social media users sought to distinguish themselves by their reaction to ‘the slap’. Inevitably, those reactions provoked further reactions, as debate turned to the merits of the positions taken, and suspicion descended on those who hadn’t yet reacted at all. Everyone waited impatiently for the Academy’s official reaction: would Smith be banned, and for how long? The amount of global attention ‘slapgate’ sucked up in the weeks after the ceremony was considerable . . . It is an infernal riddle of digital culture that ‘authenticity’ is constantly breeding its opposite: the ‘spontaneous’ event that proves to be no such thing, the ‘surprise’ that turns out to be staged, the emotional outburst that has been practised. TikTok is awash with apparently ‘authentic’ clips of humorous reactions (often based on pranks), the comments on which are preoccupied with whether or not the interaction is ‘real’. The human face, the standard for emotional truth, is also the basis for emojis and Facebook ‘reactions’, now an entire system of signification capable of conveying considerable meaning, but one from which the promise of authentic or immediate emotion has been lost. Any culture that lavishes praise on ‘authenticity’ to the extent that ours does will be beset by worries regarding ‘fakery’.”
Robert Lyman reviews Nigal Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning: “This is an important, timely and brave book. It is the first serious counterblast against the hysterical and ahistorical orthodoxy that has placed a stranglehold on public discourse over the British Empire, and it will prove to be an indispensable handbook in the battles to come.”
Sam Kriss takes stock of David Hone’s How Fast Did T. rex Run?: Unsolved Questions from the Frontiers of Dinosaur Science: “Despite the title, How Fast is not a book in which the author uses the latest science to talk about dinosaurs; it’s a book in which he uses dinosaurs to talk about science. It’s a story about knowledge and how we came to understand so much about the world.”
John Sturgis reviews Sarah May’s novel Becky: “The marketing material posits Becky as a retelling of Vanity Fair for the 21st century. As well as a relaunched Becky Sharp, it also addresses something (and someone) else, which its publishers have made rather less noise about: it’s a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Rebekah Brooks. It’s this latter ‘Becky’ who dominates much more than any homage to Thackeray . . . May sticks closely to the established Brooks facts. There’s the episode as told by her then editor Piers Morgan of when Rebekah/Becky dressed as a cleaner to steal a first edition Sunday Times so they could lift their scoop for the News of the World; the police horse given to her by an obsequious Met Police Commissioner; the notorious ‘name the paedophiles’ campaign; the hacking of Prince William’s phone and its discovery which signalled the beginning of the end of the ‘Screws’. On the way we get the familiar details of a James Hewitt and Princess Diana affair and its fallout, pyjama parties with Cherie Blair and so on, right down to a detailed description of the outfit Brooks wore to her trial. There are some tweaks to the real history . . . That’s all fair in fiction, of course. What’s harder to ignore are the many wrong notes.”
Gerard Baker, the former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, reviews Lance Morrow’s The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism: “The book is a fragmentary collection of reflections on journalism and on some of its leading figures over his career, short chapters that capture, in no particular order, stories, themes, or insights about his trade, many of which are profound, some of which border on the incomprehensible. (The chapter on the lessons of the writings of the 14th century Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko falls into the latter category—on the whole there are far too many digressions into not very relevant Japanese cultural precedents.) The book contains delicious anecdotes about some of the characters who dominated this period of American writing. We are given vivid portraits of people like Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Carl Bernstein, and Robert Caro. Morrow has mostly warm words for Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times from 1977 to 1986, a man who in striving at least for a quality of objective journalism for that paper in many ways embodies the decline of American journalism over the last 50 years.”
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