Teaching Classic Texts
in Literature, History, Philosophy, Theology, and Political Theory


Recent Articles on the Teaching of Classic Texts

▪ Helen Vendler, “Booby Trap”: A Review of David Denby’s Great Books


▪ James Shapiro, “Core Mistakes”: A Letter in Response to Helen Vendler’s Review

▪ William M. Chace, “The Decline of the English Department”


▪ Stanley Fish, “A Classical Education: Back to the Future”


• Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics?


Helen Vendler, “Booby Trap,” New Republic, October 7, 1996


Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World

by David Denby


In an original solution to what he calls his "mid-life crisis," David Denby, the movie critic of New York magazine, decided in 1991, at the age of 48, to go back to Columbia and reread the Great Books that he had encountered thirty years before in the college's two famous courses, C.C, or Contemporary-Civilization, and Lit Hum, or Literature Humanities. From the beginning, Denby seems to have had the idea of writing a book about his experience. He wanted, he says, not only "to find out what actually went on in classrooms" in these days of the culture wars, but also "to add my words to the debate from the ground up." He was eager to write "an adventure book ... and also a naive book, an amateur's book--in other words, a folly."


Denby chose the right descriptions. His book is naive, amateurish and a folly. The author's "adventures" among masterpieces suggest that one is more impermeable at the age of 48 than at the age of 18. Try as he may to suggest that he is growing and changing as he re-encounters the Great Books, his account suggests a man coming into the field with his mind made up. Take, for instance, his prefatory remarks about his "crisis":


Like many others, I was jaded yet still hungry; I was cast into the modern state of living in-the-media, a state of excitement needled with disgust. At the end of the century, the end (even!) of the millennium, the media threaten to take over altogether and push literature out of sight, and my disgust was tinged with intense emotions I couldn't quite pin down--nostalgia, regret, anger, even despair.... I sensed my identity had softened and merged into the atmosphere of representation .... My own memories were lapsing out into the fog of media life, the unlived life as spectator.


Since books, too, are instances of "representation," it's hard to see what good more representations (in printed form) might do for a man sick of spectator-ship. And the millennial threats are overplayed. Not everybody is as overwhelmed as Denby seems to be by "the modern state of living-in-the-media," and he isn't the first knell-ringer of books. Anyway, it is unlikely that an evolutionary mechanism so advantageous as language is going to stop performing its usual operations with words (from puns to poems) any time soon. But let us follow the jaded yet hungry, excited but disgusted narrator into the Columbia classrooms.


Denby explains Columbia's famous required-of-all-students courses:


The general reader need know only that C.C. grew out of Columbia's War Issues course offered during the First World War and was considered from the beginning a defense of Western civilization; and that Lit Hum (or Humanities A, as it was initially called) emerged in 1937 from a General Honors course developed by teacher and editor John Erskine over a period of years.


Denby grasps that at least one of these courses might be peculiar. I don't know if the Columbia archives would bear him out, but he avers that


from the beginning, Lit Hum was intended to enshrine the literature of Christian Europe in a college increasingly populated by the children of Eastern or Southern European immigrants--the unwashed but not unwashable Jews and Italians who needed to be assimilated into the larger culture of the country.


Against this assertion, I can only say that in 1937 there were rather few of the great unwashed enrolled in Columbia College; and John Erskine, in putting together a fall semester of ancient Greek and Latin writers in his course, was hardly enshrining (with the exception of Augustine) the "literature of Christian Europe." It might more truly be said that he was enshrining Anglophilia. The second semester of Lit Hum included Dante and Goethe, but it also included Spinoza; and a fair number of the writers on the list of 1937 who might be said by Denby to belong to "Christian Europe" were also on another and more powerful list, Rome's Index of Forbidden Books: Machiavelli, Rabelais, Rousseau and Voltaire, among others.


By so conspicuously calling Europe "Christian Europe," Denby exhibits the muddled thinking that pervades his book. "Christianity" and " Europe" are far from simple concepts, and nobody, asked to cite some works from "the literature of Christian Euro pe," would be likely to mention Tom Jones or Candide. In fact, Lit Hum's spring list of 1937 is rather peculiarly unrepresentative of Christianity: "Dante" refers, of course, to the Inferno rather than the Paradiso; "Goethe" includes only Part I of Faust (no salvation there); the selection from Moliere includes Tartuffe, in which religious hypocrisy is satirized; Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel is robustly anti-clerical and blasphemous; and the power politics of Henry/V,, Parts I and II, hardly represent "Christian Europe" as, say, The Winter's Tale, with its resurrective image, might represent it. Thomas Aquinas is conspicuously absent, along with other theological writers from Bonaventure to Rolle. Even Milton, in the form of the required Paradise Lost, hardly represents European Christi an orthodoxy. On the whole, if one entered as one of the unwashed, one would be wholeheartedly converted, at the end of Lit Hum, to a form of washedness that was notably skeptical.


In 1961-62, when Denby first sat through Lit Hum, not too much in the second semester had changed. The cheerful Tom Jones had been dropped, in those existentialist days, in favor of Crime and Punishment, and Machiavelli had disappeared. Bits of the New Testament had been added (no doubt because the students had become more secular--and more Jewish), as bits of the Hebrew Bible had been added in the first, "classical," semester. Faust now included (perhaps for the same reason) Part II. Shakespeare was much expanded: there was King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest.


By 1991, however, when Denby returned to the classroom for his mid-life tune-up, Rabelais, Cervantes, Spinoza, Swift, Voltaire, Dostoevsky and Part II of Faust had been scratched from the list in favor of Boccaccio, Descartes, Austen and Woolf. Paradise Lost is listed as "optional." Shakespeare is reduced to King Lear and a play of the instructor's choice. Instead of Woolf, the instructor can substitute another text. It is clear that the subterranean discontents of students or professors, along with cultural change, caused the alterations. In the first "classical" semester, a feeble propitiatory nod to the female presence in the student body appeared in the insertion of the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter" and selections from Sappho.


No doubt someone will write a revealing book on the history of these changes. But Denby is not much bothered by them. One selection of "Great Books" will represent "the literature of Christian Europe" as well as another Yet if such books have t he impact that he claims for them, it should matter whether a student reads Aquinas or Spinoza, Machiavelli or Boccaccio, Austen or Dostoevsky. Which picture of "Christian Europe" should the college aim to purvey? As long as he is in the company of a "Great Book," Denby seems not to care, though he sturdily resists Kant and Dante, and feels himself something of an enlightened modern crusader in so doing. More of that later.


So far I have neglected the second course, the one so curiously evolving from War Issues." Known rather bizarrely as "Contemporary Civilization," it begins nevertheless with Thucydides and makes its sociopolitical, way (in its present form) through Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine (The City of God), Aquinas (politics and ethics), Christine de Pisan, Machiavelli, Calvin, Descartes, Galileo, Hobbes and Locke, progresses, in the spring term, to Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Madison, Smith, Hegel, Marx, Mill, Woll-stonecraft, Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. Then it closes with a flurry of choice: the instructor must select one book from a list containing Weber, Gramsci, Arendt, Lenin and Habermas, and one book from a list containing Beauvoir, MacKinnon, Rawls, Fanon, Malcolm X, West (Cornel), Foucault an d some Supreme Court decisions. (The particular decisions are unspecified, but I don't doubt that they broach issues of gender or race.) The first list of elective readings exists to satisfy academic Marxists, on the faculty or among the students, and th e second exists to satisfy feminists or black studies advocates. It is a sad falling-off from Machiavelli to MacKinnon, from Descartes to Malcolm X.


The list for C.C. is idea-driven. What have writers had to say about the good or the just or the desirable society? With its twenty-six authors (plus parts of the Bible), the course is a once-over-lightly: many of the texts (the Republic, the Nico-machean Ethics, the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals) are not your ordinary coverable-in-a-week works. Indeed, my first emotion on beginning Denby's book was an incredulous sympathy for the teachers that have to frog-march freshmen or sophomores through these dense texts (or through den se selections from them). Denby quotes a now-departed instructor who thought that there was too much too fast. Not Denby. He is sure that "the struggle to read seriously, the hundred hours or so of seminar discussion, would necessarily leave their mark o n the student." But what mark, exactly? And is this the best way to spend those hundred hours?


One could envisage a different way to introduce students to the European past, a way that would not be driven solely by the idea of a good society, but by several ideas of how to live both the public life and the private life. Students might read t he Symposium or the Satyricon or the Ars Amatoria. Dialogues on love and satires on social practice might be considered as instructive as treatises on politics and ethics. Along with Machiavelli, one might read Pascal, so that not only government but also introspection might count as an index of "Western civilization." It's a sad reduction of "Western thought" to confine it to thoughts on politics and ethics. The philosophical texts in C.C. are drawn almost entirely from political philosophy and ethic s, scanting almost entirely the other branches of philosophical thought--aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, the philosophy of science. Wittgenstein is conspicuously absent.


Denby provides three reading lists (1937,1961,1991) for Lit Hum, but he does not .offer any earlier lists of C.C. since its "War Issues" incarnation, remarking only that C.C. "has changed the nature of its reading lists so radically that printing syllabi from seventy or fifty years ago would serve little purpose." There must be a story there. Denby does not seem to realize that a history of former radical change at Columbia supports precisely the argument of those who would now once again alter "the canon." Perhaps the designers of C.C., inventing a course under the pressure of war, felt that one could interest students (or their teachers) only in political and ethical matters, and gave up on the other branches of philosophy; but the result of C.C. (as I have seen it) is that most Columbia graduates think of "ideas" as a word referring to political or ethical concepts rather than to aesthetic or metaphysical ones.


Political life, in such a course, is deemed "realer" than private life or aesthetic life. Ideas about society and the state are presented as more important than ideas about what Yeats called "making [one's] soul." Even in Lit Hum, the supposedly literary course, the spring books chosen (except those by women authors) are ones heavy on "ideas" in the Columbia sense: the Confessions, Montaigne, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Descartes, Goethe. (Conrad's Heart of Darkness was Denby's instructor's choice i n the "free" week, though other instructors chose Dostoevsky or Mann or Gide or Borges, for thematic or theoretical reasons that one can easily deduce.) Think what a different sense of Western civilization students would have if the literature list offer ed the Metamorphoses, Troilus and Criseyde, Villon, Ariosto, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Boswell's Johnson, 'Keats, Beckett, Nabokov. What a send-up of solemn "ideas" as the foundation of discussion of Western culture such a course would be! And such a li st would be no less representative of "the Western mind" than Lit Hum's current smorgasbord.


Denby thinks that he is boldly taking part in the culture wars by defending the existence of courses such as C.C. and Lit Hum. But since he never engages with (or even seems to notice) the principles behind Columbia's choice of books from the Western canon, he cannot really touch the central objections to such courses: that an agenda is present, but it is not enunciated; that the books are said to be "great" but the criteria for "greatness" (beyond longevity alone) are assumed rather than held up for inspection and imperceptibly mutate from generation to generation. Instead Denby blusters and blunders from course to course, sampling the 'teaching of various instructors and giving (rather sparsely) instances of the disheartening student "discussions" of the texts.


And, most of all, chummily judging the works he reads, as if they were the movies of the week up for review. Dante, for instance. Denby has a hard time with Dante. He begins by giving samples of pseudonymous student comments on Dante. "Why is he so obsessed with these people? Who is he to come up 'with these tortures?" says one. “There are mosques in hell. Dante is Turk-bashing," says another, offering "to put Dante himself in the circle reserved for bigots and racists." And Denby feels pretty much the same way:


Yes, [the Inferno] was fantasy and representation, not real life, but I could not rid myself of the notion that Dante had entered into complicity with torture. In some way, he believed in torture; he justified it. In life, the torturer's lust for control yields to mortality; the victim dies. Here the torment goes on forever. A man would be tormented eternally for "barratry"---for graft .... Imagine! A New York pol caught in a parking-ticket scam buried in excrement forever!


In vain do the instructors attempt to form, in Denby as well as in the undergraduates, a more complicated attitude. "Everybody's a Christian, guys. It's not a sermon ... it's a Christian poem written for a Christian audience in a Christian framework," sa ys Professor Shapiro. "You've got to try to understand before you judge," says Professor Tayler. They are right to warn against facile transpositions from one age to another, from a religious culture to a secular culture. Yet such arguments don't go to t he heart of the matter. In literature, one earns one's place by writing memorably, not by expressing agreeable attitudes that will wear as well in 1991 as in 1300, or that can be forgiven by an "understanding" reader.


And this brings up the question of teaching poetry in translation (Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Dante, in this case). The single string in Dante's bow, finally, is his use of the Italian language. His imagination is celebrated too, but we wouldn't remember his imaginative acts unless they were embodied in his alternately severe and voluptuous Italian. It is no wonder undergraduates don't kindle to Dante, since he has been stripped of his fundamental persuasive power. The poor students, and t heir poor middle,aged chronicler, are not really reading Dante. I do not expect them to master the Italian of fourteenth-century Florence. But I do expect them to grasp that there is a difference and a loss, and that their judicial pronouncement--whatever satisfaction they may pro-vide--have no aesthetic foundation.


Denby gestures pathetically at this truth when Professor Shapiro asks an Italian-speaking student to read aloud, in Italian, the opening lines of the Inferno. Denby absurdly says, quoting the first twelve lines, that "I would ask the reader to read the lines aloud, even if, like me, he doesn't speak a word of Italian .... So strong was the sound of Dante's poetry that it made me feel I wasn't reading the.poem at all." Poetry is thus reduced to what Denby calls "metrics" and "sound"--indispensable enough if you understand their function with respect to what is being. said, but hardly useful when they stand alone, as unintelligible as Iroquois.


It is no surprise that Virgil, in Robert Fitzgerald's translation, suffers much the same fate. Encountering the Aeneid makes even Denby sympathize (rather ungrammatically) with "opponents of the canon":


The Aeneid is the epitome of what opponents of the canon hate: a self-empowering myth of origins, a celebration of empire .... No doubt about it--the poem asserts the centrality of Rome in such a way that renders [sic] other people besides the Greek-Trojan-Roman line marginal .... dull Aeneas, in my mind, came to embody the culture of the West itself, marching grimly but purpose fully into the future. He brought his father and son, but he left his women behind.


And the instructors cannot change Denby's mind. In vain does Shapiro argue that "Virgil subverted the gloriffcation of empire at every turn," and Tayler that this is a poem that emphasizes loss. Denby concludes in a fashion that he visibly considers high -minded:


No wonder people who had been reading the poem for years said they did not understand it. Virgil himself may not have understood it... That Virgil's attitudes were "wrong" should not bother anyone. That his poem is hurt as art by those attitudes is something to grieve over and deplore.


Why do I find the spectacle of New Y0rk's movie critic "grieving over" and "deploring" Virgil's damaged art so irresistibly comic? Why does his weighty judgment that Virgil himself "may not have understood" his own poem seem, to say the least, like something out of Moliere? Denby seems not to understand that the judgment of a literary work is a judgment of the fitness of the style to the subject, manner to matter, and that it cannot be made anachro-nistically nor (with any confidence) through translation. Nor does he understand that the artist's objective is to do something that hasn't been done before, and to do it in an original achievement of style. If he or she succeeds, that's it: the product is as unquarrelable-with as a lake or a mountain. It ha s become, through the admiration of subsequent writers, a part of the landscape of culture.


It makes no sense to say, on the grounds of morals, or taste, or women's rights, or whatever, that a literary masterwork should have been differently conceived or differently executed. Of course, one can argue (as critics of "Great Books" courses sometimes do) that students should not be forced to read morally ,"deplorable" or "elitist" books in a required course in college; that a college course, if it is to be required, should please contemporary moral taste. (That taste is defined, of course, by the critics themselves.) This is where Columbia's Lit Hum becomes muddled in its principles. It obviously selects literary works on the basis of their suitability for ethical or political argument, as though artists were valuable for making arguments, for their theological or moral or political opinions. Columbia feels no qualms about teaching literary works blithely in translation and detached from the thought of their time. It uses such works (as the title "Contemporary Civilization" testifies) not to illuminate, say, the Middle Ages, but to take up, say, "war issues" in 1917. The highly content-oriented principle behind the choice of texts in both courses directs students forcibly toward ethical judgment, unclouded by literary or imaginative considerations. Perhaps it does students no harm to conduct bull-sessions about colonialism in class; but should Conrad be sacrificed to such an aim?


Denby really goes to town on Conrad. He refuses--nobly, he thinks-the view that Heart of Darkness endorses the colonial ambitions of the British Empire. He asks whether "thousands of European and American readers may not have become nauseated by colonialism after reading Heart of Darkness?" He appears not to see the reality of his position, that the politically incorrect does not differ essentially from the politically correct: both are moral positions taken with respect to art. The politically correct think that the work is pro-colonial, and therefore has a bad effect on the reader; Denby thinks that it is anti-colonial, and therefore has a good effect on the reader. He cannot see what the two views have in common, and their common irrelevance. Treating fictions as moral pep-pills or moral emetics is repugnant to anyone who realizes the complex psychological and formal motives of a work of art. The representations in fiction are never driven by mimesis alone.


Denby contests Chinua Achebe's protest against Heart of Darkness--Achebe maintains that "'Conrad's picture of the people of the Congo seems grossly inadequate.'" Denby argues that "no act of consciousness can ever be absolutely complete," that "Con rad did not offer Heart of Darkness as 'a picture of the people of the Congo' any more than Achebe's Things Fall Apart, set in a Nigerian village, purports to be a rounded picture of the British overlords." And yet Denby allows that he has been "changed by the debate in class," that he has seen the relevance of a political reading of the novel. As a convert, he now attacks former critical methods (as he complacently understands them): "To maintain that this book is not embedded in the world--to treat it innocently, as earlier academic critics did, as a garden of symbols, or as a quest for the Grail or the Father, or whatnot--is itself to diminish Conrad's achievement." God knows what Denby has been reading, since he cites no names for these "earlier academic critics." But the mediocrity of criticism has not ceased just because one has substituted political readings for Freud-ian readings or archetypal readings. Denby's faith in "embeddedness" is no less partial and uncomprehending than someone else's faith in mythological or psychoanalytic subtexts.


I do not want to blame Denby alone for this. He is imbibing Columbia's tendency with literary texts, which is to fasten on the political and the moral over the erotic or aesthetic or epistemologi-cal; and such an emphasis is a standing invitation t o correctness or incorrectness, since it steers discussion, willy-nilly, toward currently agitated political and moral questions. In itself, this agenda of instruction, though it would not be my choice of a "Great Books" course, cannot be said to cause actual harm. Both of these courses have proved enlightening and broadening to many generations of Columbia students. But something has changed for the worse, I suspect. Were Columbia's students in the past-or their instructors--likely to make anachronistic and patronizing judgments on Virgil or Dante or Conrad, stemming from concerns of the present? I suspect that former generations were invited to immerse themselves in the mentality of the past without the presence of this sort of invidious judgment. Bu t now they can all hold themselves contentedly superior to the "Turk-bashing" Dante.


I would hate to have my own teaching represented by notes taken by someone like Denby, so I haven't quoted much from his account of his instructors. But this is what he represents Professor Shapiro (whom Denby calls "the Coach") as saying at the be ginning of the Conrad class:


I don't want to say that this is a work that teaches desperation ... or that the evil is something we can't deal with. In some ways, the world we live in is not as dark as Conrad's; in some ways darker. This is not a one-way slide to the apocalypse that we are witnessing. We ourselves have the ability now to recognize and even to fix and change our society even as literature reflects, embodies, and serves as an agent of change.


Now, this sermon-mode (complete with its hortatory "we") is much more grand than Denby's earlier account of how the Coach began the Conrad class:


"Who here comes from a savage race?" the Coach shouted at his students. "We all come from Africa," said the one African-American in the class ... Shapiro smiled. It was not, I thought, exactly the answer he was looking for, but it was a good answer. Then he was off again. "Are you natural?" he roared at a woman sitting quiet ly near him at the end of the table. "What are the constraints for you? What are the rivets? Why are you here getting civilized, reading Lit Hum?"


In Denby's rendition, Shapiro doesn't sound any too civilized himself with his shouting and roaring. (The words may be the voluble Denby's attempt to jazz up the threateningly dull prospect of retailing what goes on. in a college course.) But whether Shapiro is doing his' pulpit-act or his intimidation-act, none of what he is reported to have said has anything to do with bringing students to understand the. two fundamental gestures of literature, what Stevens called "the poetry of the idea" and "t he poetry of the words"---that is, how Conrad turned what might have been a conventional travelogue into an imaginatively powerful fiction, and what discourses he had to mobilize (or to invent) to do so. Seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone using a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgment of the difference between hand-woven silk and a kitchen towel. It is true that some of 'the instructors struggle against the morally judgmental tide (Professors Tayler and Van Zuylen, for instance, the One emphasizing architectonics, the other "the resurrection of life through art"), but it's hard to work against the emphasis of the selection, which has been designed to provoke students into s ocio-politico-moral position-taking.


To come, then, to the other course, the more overtly philosophical Contemporary Civilization. Does it lend itself better to the emphasis on "ideas" on which the two courses are predicated? Does Denby learn anything as he gives the course a second try? He has a lot of trouble with these texts and has to struggle not to fall asleep: there's less human interest here. But human interest gets dragged in anyway. Hegelian dialectic makes one student suggest that "the Holocaust was the Fortunate Fall. It drove the founding of Israel." The instructor rushes in to say that "you can make the Hegelian argument that the Holocaust can be read dialectically.... But this is not a justification for the Holocaust." And Denby is off and running:


His clarification only introduced greater contention. Several students voiced their dismay, and I snarled m myself that I lacked the ingenuity to read the Holocaust dialectically as the necessary spur to Israel's creation .... What did Hegel mean by freedom anyway?... many of us would be loath to nominate Prussia in 1815, with its censorship, its lack of representative bodies, as our ideal of freedom. Indeed, if Prussia was Hegel's ideal, he may well have approved, despite his dismissal of the morality of the East, the paternalistic. and authoritarian Singapore.


Poor Hegel. Did he ask to have the Holocaust and--God save the mark-- Singapore brought into the discussion? The relentless bringing of everything past into everything present so falsities the contribution to thought made by successive philosophical systems that students can hardly be made to realize the explanatory and cognitive value of such systems.


Denby likes to bring everything back to himself. If he reads Hegel on human beings constructing each other as persons by mutual recognition; the passage is attached to Denby's being mugged in the subway. And it is converted, to boot, into High Noon:


I had not looked the two young men in the eyes, literally refusing them "recognition." The reason, as I said earlier, was both contempt and fear: You do not eyeball someone holding a gun on you .... In Hegel's fiction, the men who met at high noon had no past; they met, so to speak, as equals. The two men who faced me were probably descendants of actual slaves, and while one can't forget that, the fact doesn't, in itself, change the nature of the encounter. The difference between us was one of class. If the two young men had held up a black man in a suit on his way to work, the dynamics of the situation would have been the same.


I'd say the "difference between" Denby and the muggers was first and foremost one of criminality. To say it was one of class is to stigmatize all blacks in poverty, most of whom do not end up as muggers.


When Denby can't naturalize a philosophical doctrine with such a human interest vignette, he becomes fretfully cross. Though his instructor energetically expounds Kant's interest in epistemology and in a moral a priori, such things leave Denby cold. They don't have enough to do with real life: "Was it possible? Was it sane? To derive an ethics purely from reason and will; to compose a guide to action elaborated without the pressures that every human actor feels, a rumble of indigestion, a mood?" A nd wasn't Kant's experience awfully narrow compared with, hey, Denby's? "Manuel [a student] obviously had a point about parochialism. A lifelong bachelor, Kant had never gone farther than five miles from the small city of Konigsberg .... Wasn't there something provincial, limited, repressed, perhaps privileged in his conception of the moral life?... I agreed with the students."


As for thinking, with Kant, that an act committed from inclination cannot properly be called an act of genuine moral worth, that morality), resides in the fulfillment of duty--why, Denby can scarcely contain his scorn: "The passage has its loony an d comical side, an excruciating pathos. It's almost as if, for Kant, enjoyment and spontaneity minted virtue, and wretchedness and willed propriety sanctified it. Great noble booby!" But "wretchedness and willed propriety" are not at issue in Kant. Kant' s aim for human beings is happiness consonant with fight conduct. Duty is a debt; it is not a "propriety," like the right fork. The booby here is not Kant.


And Denby is a patronizing booby, too, 'judiciously assessing what Kant, or Dante, or any other thinker or writer who has the misfortune to fall into his hands, has to offer. He seems to think that he is by this means asserting himself as an adult. Kids may have to swallow it whole; hell, he swallowed it whole the first time around; but this time he's not going to be buffaloed into any grovelling submission. No, sir: "Extending piety to classics that one didn't respond to was an academic vice, and I had to avoid it. I would read for enjoyment and instruction, and when bored, I would say so." And when he thought that Kant was a great noble booby, he would say that, too.


And he would be fair, too. He would not let himself off the moral hook. Did he treat those muggers right? And what about his mother? You didn't think he'd leave her out, did you? "Unlike Regan and Goneril," he writes in his chapter on King Lear, "I did my parent no great harm--I took care of her in the slightly distant but steady way that wary only sons take care of mothers--but I was often in a rage." And what do you know, he becomes a veritable Kantian booby, full of wretchedness and willed propriety,, as he does his duty: "No matter, I told myself at the time. The thing required in grown-up sons was duty. What you felt was beside the point. You had obligations, and you had to fulfill them." Are we to believe that Denby has undergone a Kantian conversion? And if so, why was there no sign of it forty pages earlier, not even a repentant parenthesis?


Well, this book will give no aid or comfort to anyone on either side of the culture wars. How does one defend courses in the "Great Books," if they produce in their students (and no doubt in some instructors) mindless attacks on serious writers of the past? And why attack them, since substituting another sociopolitical set of books--more modern, more representative of marginalized groups, more critical of "Western Culture"---only perpetuates the old bad habit of ignoring the difference between a sermon and a novel, an idea and a painting? One can answer wearily that education has to start somewhere, and it hardly matters where: American students entering university have read practically nothing, so anything will help to advance them to a next level of consciousness. And this is not done in a single term, or by a single course, or even by courses alone. If the student graduating from college has a more nuanced set of intellectual responses than an equally intelligent student of the same age who ha s not been to college, then all the conversations and the courses and the extra-curricular activities have had a cumulatively desirable effect. In that hope, most teachers teach.


As for morals themselves, they are not acquired in college courses. They are acquired in childhood and taught by example. Courses in "moral reasoning" (as Harvard calls its set of Core Courses on philosophical, mostly ethical, concepts) may sharpen one's sense of the rationality and the logic proper to informed moral discussion, but they don't make one a better spouse or father or friend or citizen. To think that moral betterment can be the result of a required course in which students hash over lightweight arguments on complex books (one per week, more or less); to confuse moral instruction (or mutual moral hectoring) on fashionable contemporary issues with the pursuit of learning or the understanding of literature; to throw a week of Dante in translation at students who have not the faintest notion of the Middle Ages or Christian doctrine--all this is not to extend "Western civilization," but to travesty it.


And our hero? He concludes that "the courses in the Western classics force us to ask all those questions about self and society we no 'longer address without embarrassment-the questions our media-trained habits of irony have tricked us out of asking." Odd, Swift's "habits of irony" never tricked him out of asking such questions. Nor Montaigne's. Nor Cervantes's. Of course, they lived and thought before we were, every last one of us, media-trained. But the important point is that irony--and self-irony above all--is the first requisite of the educated mind. And Denby, on the evidence of his book, has not yet acquired it.


In his conclusion, with a certain magniloquence, he distributes points to "the left" and "the right":


To the left, I would say that reading the canon in the 1990's is unlikely to turn anyone into a chauvinist or an imperialist .... People who deny the power of aesthetic experience or the possibility of disinterested judgment may well have cynical or careerist reasons for doing so.


And to the right, I would say that however instructive the great works might be in building the moral character of the nation's citizens, the books were more likely, in the initial brush, to mean something idiosyncratic and personal .... I agree with William Bennett and other traditionalists to this extent: Men and women educated in the Western tradition will have the best possible shot at the daunting task of reinventing morality and community in a republic now badly tattered by fear and mistrust .


As Denby's rhetoric in this passage rises to its climax, I could only think in amazement about the new millenarian importance of college reading lists: Lit Hum and C.C. now have to do what Milton thought only the Incarnation could do--repair the fall of our first parents. As Denby gravely proclaims the republic to be "badly tattered," we are to think that his sovereign judgment has been upheld by the Great Books that he has studied so deeply: "They offer the most direct representation of the possibilities of civil existence and the disaster of its dissolution." Isn't it strange that someone could write this way after reading Montaigne?


And the mid-life crisis? Since the arguments and the opinions expressed are too coarse and too slipshod to be taken seriously, one can perhaps read Denby's book as the autobiography of a tired man wanting a break from the movies. The account is framed as a conversion narrative. He was weak but now he is strong. Here is a part of Denby's peroration on the personal dimension of his adventures:


I was exposing myself to something greater than my life, stronger than my life--but also exposing my life--and the books called back things that I had forgotten or been afraid to face, and so I knew that I had sinned in the way Augustine said we all sinned and that I had not always served my mad and needy mother well in her final years .... I was discovering an edge, talking more and more in class, even competing with the teachers .... In truth, by the end, I had grown stronger. Not empowered in the social way that critics of the canon meant, but personally stronger.... I had recovered a good part of myself.... I did not feel desolate at the end of the year.


If we believe him, then the books and the teachers and the classrooms worked their therapeutic magic even without his understanding how they did it. But I would bet that the result would have been the same with four entirely different sets of absorbing books. There would have been the same feeling of intellectual refreshment, of having spent exciting time with interesting minds, of having been talked to (or roared at) by committed and intelligent teachers. And that makes the whole question of the "Great Books" moot, doesn't it?





HELEN VENDLER is Porter University Professor at Harvard. She has recently published The Given and the Made and The Breaking of Style (Harvard University Press).



Core mistakes


To the editors:


Helen Vendler is angry ("The Booby Trap," October 7, 1996). But anger sometimes blinds, and in this case it has led one of the finest of contemporary critics to stumble badly.


Disregarding David Denby's disclaimers, Vendler insists on taking his book as a guide to Columbia's core curriculum. Had she bothered to check with anyone who teaches at Columbia she would have avoided many misconceptions about the course, especially those concerning which books get taught. In her eagerness to offer her own counter-cannon, Vendler wonders "what a different sense of Western civilization students would have" and what "a send-up of solemn ideas' as the foundation of Western culture" it would be if Columbia's students were exposed to such works as Ovid's Metamorphosis, Plato's Symposium and Petronius's Satyricon. Her alternative canon will sound familiar enough to those who teach Literature Humanities, where these and scores of other books have appeared on the ever-changing reading list and will no doubt appear again. Her notion of the course's syllabus as solemn and immutable is a fantasy--as is the ideology she attributes to the course, based on her facile assumption that the reading list necessarily produces a monolithic reading of Western civilization which is then accepted unquestioningly by impressionable students.


Vendler goes on to invent--in order to condemn--a working model of the course Denby took based on a biased reading of Denby's highly subjective experience. Anyone who has ever taught knows the folly of relying on a student's version of what happens in a class: like most students, Denby tends to recall and reflect upon parts of the course that he found meaningful and memorable. Thus, for example, because Denby is keen on ethics and politics Vendler attacks the course for ignoring other concerns, particularly aesthetic ones. In reality, class discussions range widely over such topics as literary form, authorship, philology, myth, subjectivity, community, religion, history, law, love, sex, suicide, happiness and just about everything else of interest to students and teachers.


Vendler's mockery gets out of hand in her sneering attacks on Columbia undergraduates. Based on snippets of class discussion Denby quotes as a springboard for his own insights, Vendler decides that class time consists of "bull sessions" in which "students hash over lightweight arguments." Her comments reveal more about her condescending attitude toward undergraduates than about what took place in extended discussions she was neither part of nor privy to. Once again, Vendler doesn't know what she is talking about.


The same holds true for her reference to " Columbia's tendency with literary texts." Can she really believe such nonsense? I'm afraid to say that this institutional tendency exists only in Vendler's overheated imagination: Columbia professors, who have been trained and taught at dozens of universities, including her own, bring a predictably broad range of literary approaches to the classroom.


One of the lessons of Denby's book is that those who engage in the culture wars ought to write from what they observe, not what they like to believe they know; it is an admonition that Helen Vendler should have taken to heart.


James Shapiro

New York, New York



The Decline of the English Department

William M. Chace, The American Scholar, Autumn 2009


During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history. As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land. And because it is probably irreversible, it is important to attempt to sort out the reasons—the many reasons—for what has happened.


First the facts: while the study of English has become less popular among undergraduates, the study of business has risen to become the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities. With more than twice the majors of any other course of study, business has become the concentration of more than one in five American undergraduates. Here is how the numbers have changed from 1970/71 to 2003/04 (the last academic year with available figures):


English: from 7.6 percent of the majors to 3.9 percent

Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 percent to 1.3 percent

Philosophy and religious studies: from 0.9 percent to 0.7 percent

History: from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent

Business: from 13.7 percent to 21.9 percent


In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.


What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. 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.


That, as I say, is the most serious cause of the decline in the number of humanities students. But it is not alone. In an educational collapse of this magnitude, other forces must also be at play. The first of these is the surging growth of public higher education and the relatively slower growth of private colleges and universities.


During the most recent period for which good figures are available (from 1972 to 2005), more young people entered the world of higher education than at any time in American history. Where did they go? Increasingly into public, not private, schools. In the space of that one generation, public colleges and universities wound up with more than 13 million students in their classrooms while private institutions enrolled about 4.5 million. Students in public schools tended toward majors in managerial, technical, and pre-professional fields while students in private schools pursued more traditional and less practical academic subjects.


Although many public institutions have had an interest in teaching the humanities, their prime role has always rested elsewhere: in engineering, research science, and the applied disciplines (agriculture, mining, viniculture, veterinary medicine, oceanography). By contrast, private schools have until now been the most secure home of the humanities. But today even some liberal arts colleges are offering fewer courses in the liberal arts and more courses that are “practical.” With their ascendancy, the presiding ethos of public institutions—fortified by the numbers of majors and faculty, and by the amounts of money involved—has come to exert a more and more powerful thrust in American higher education. The result? The humanities, losing the national numbers game, find themselves moving to the periphery of American higher education.


But were they ever at the center? The notion that the literary humanities in particular have been at the heart of American higher education is, I think, a mirage. I once thought so because of the great popularity of the study of literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. Yet the “glory years” of English and American literature turn out to have been brief. Before we regret the decline of the literary humanities, then, we must acknowledge how fleeting their place in the sun was.


In this country and in England, the study of English literature began in the latter part of the 19th century as an exercise in the scientific pursuit of philological research, and those who taught it subscribed to the notion that literature was best understood as a product of language. The discipline treated the poems and narratives of a particular place, the British Isles, as evidence of how the linguistic roots of that place—Germanic, Romance, and other—conditioned what had been set before us as “masterpieces.” The twin focus, then, was on the philological nature of the enterprise and the canon of great works to be studied in their historical evolution.


Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Gerald Graff’s impressive study of what happened next, shows that even criticism of that canon is not yet a century old: “Scholar and critic emerge as antithetical terms,” he writes, and “the gulf further widens between fact and value, investigation and appreciation, scientific specialization and general culture.” Yet neither side denied the existence of a canon or that its historical development could be studied.


The stability of these ideas in the postwar years, from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, permitted the spectacular growth in English departments. The number of English majors spurted up from 17,000 to 64,000 and the number of graduate students from 230 to 1,591. (As part of that spurt, I entered graduate school in 1961 and got my Ph.D. seven years later.) But by 1985/86, the number of undergraduate English majors had fallen back to 34,000, despite a hefty increase in total nationwide undergraduate enrollment. In the foreign languages, philosophy, and history, the story was the same: impressive growth followed by swift decline. The history of enrollments reveals, then, that the study of English and American literature enjoyed only a momentary glamour.


What was the appeal of English during those now long-ago days? For me, English as a way of understanding the world began at Haverford College, where I was an undergraduate in the late 1950s. The place was small, the classrooms plain, the students all intimidated boys, and the curriculum both straightforward and challenging. What we read forced us to think about the words on the page, their meaning, their ethical and psychological implications, and what we could contrive (in 500-word essays each week) to write about them. With the books in front of us, we were taught the skills of interpretation. Our tasks were difficult, the books (Emerson’s essays, David Copperfield, Shaw’s Major Barbara, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and a dozen other works) were masterly, and our teacher possessed an authority it would have been “bootless” (his word) to question.


Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.


Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one’s future. In comparison with the pre-professional ambitions that dominate the lives of American undergraduates today, the psychological condition of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.



Also visible in the late 1940s and early 1950s were thousands of GIs returning from World War II with a desire to establish for themselves lives as similar as possible to those they imagined had been led by the college generation before their own. For these veterans, college implied security and tradition, a world unlike the one they had left behind in Europe and the Pacific. So they did what they thought one always did in college: study, reflect, and learn. They would reconnect, they thought, with the cultural traditions the war had been fought to defend. Thus a curriculum complete with “great books” and a pantheon of established authors went without question for those students, and it was reinforced for everybody else.


For those like me who immediately followed them in the 1950s and early 1960s, the centrality of the humanities to a liberal education was a settled matter. But by the end of the 1960s, everything was up for grabs and nothing was safe from negative and reductive analysis. Every form of anti-authoritarian energy—concerning sexual mores, race relations, the war in Vietnam, mind-altering drugs—was felt across the nation (I was at Berkeley, the epicenter of all such energies). Against such ferocious intensities, few elements of the cultural patterns of the preceding decades could stand. The long-term consequences of such a spilling-out of the old contents of what college meant reverberate today.


In addition to the long-term consequences, today there are stunning changes in the student population: there are more and more gifted and enterprising students coming from immigrant backgrounds, students with only slender connections to Western culture and to the assumption that the “great books” of England and the United States should enjoy a fixed centrality in the world. What was once the heart of the matter now seems provincial. Why throw yourself into a study of something not emblematic of the world but representative of a special national interest? As the campus reflects the cultural, racial, and religious complexities of the world around it, reading British and American literature looks more and more marginal. From a global perspective, the books look smaller.


But there are additional reasons for the drop in numbers of students concentrating in English and other subjects in the literary humanities. History, geography, and demography do not explain it all. Other forces, both external and internal, have been at work. The literary humanities and, in particular, English are in trouble for reasons beyond their control and for reasons of their own making. First, an obvious external cause: money. With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree. Their college-age children doubtless share such anxiety. When college costs were lower, anxiety could be kept at bay. ( Berkeley in the early ’60s cost me about $100 a year, about $700 in today’s dollars.) Alexander W. Astin’s research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that “being very well off financially” was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.


Off-campus, the consumer’s point of view about future earnings and economic security was a mirror image of on-campus thinking in the offices of deans, provosts, and presidents. I was in those offices, day in and day out, for 20 years, and can report that such officials are forever considering how to exploit available resources against ever-growing operating costs. As those costs grow, they create a paradox: the only way to bring in more money, over and above tuition income, is to employ more and more people to attract philanthropic donors and to assure the continuing flow of research dollars from governmental and other sources. Every administrator is complicit in the expanding number of necessary non-faculty employees—development officers, technical support staff, research assistants, lawyers attuned to federal regulations—and human resource personnel to handle the ever-growing numbers of just such new employees. I agree with historian Lynn Hunt’s description of the situation: “The university staff as a whole is getting bigger, but the relative presence of faculty, secretaries, and janitors is actually declining.” The faculty decline is, in particular, in the humanities, which bring in almost no outside income. Economists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, computer scientists, and almost everyone in the medical sciences win sponsored research, grants, and federal dollars. By and large, humanists don’t, and so they find themselves as direct employees of the institution, consuming money in salaries, pensions, and operating needs—not external money but institutional money.


The English department has one sturdy lifeline, however: it is responsible for teaching composition. While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned.


Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset. The presence of endowed “centers for the humanities,” the availability of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the MacArthur Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others, ease in only small ways the financial crunch universities now endure. As John H. D’Arms, formerly the head of the ACLS, reported more than a decade ago, even the meager outside support conveyed to humanists is slowly drying up and the responsibility for their well-being is “being increasingly shifted to the colleges and universities and . . . they cannot, or will not, make up the losses from other sources.”


These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.


English has become less and less coherent as a discipline and, worse, has come near exhaustion as a scholarly pursuit. English departments have not responded energetically and resourcefully to the situation surrounding them. While aware of their increasing marginality, English professors do not, on the whole, accept it. Reluctant to take a clear view of their circumstances—some of which are not under their control—they react by asserting grandiose claims while pursuing self-centered ends. Amid a chaos of curricular change, requirements dropped and added, new areas of study in competition with older ones, and a variety of critical approaches jostling against each other, many faculty members, instead of reconciling their differences and finding solid ground on which to stand together, have gone their separate ways. As they have departed, they have left behind disorder in their academic discipline. Unable to change history or rewrite economic reality, they might at least have kept their own house in order. But this they have not done.


The result—myriad pursuits, each heading away from any notion of a center—has prompted many thoughtful people to question what, indeed, the profession of literature amounts to. As long ago as 1982, the iconoclastic literary critic Frederick Crews, keenly attracted to exposing the moribund in intellectual life, announced that the study of English literature couldn’t decide if it was “a legitimate discipline or only a pastime.” He concluded that it was not so much a profession as a “comatose field.” Two decades later, in 2004, looking back over his shoulder, the intellectual historian and literary journalist Louis Menand told his fellow professors at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association something they already knew: while student enrollment in the humanities peaked around 1970, “it has been downhill” ever since. His verdict: “It may be that what has happened to the profession is not the consequence of social or philosophical changes, but simply the consequence of a tank now empty.” His homely metaphor pointed to the absence of genuinely new frontiers of knowledge and understanding for English professors to explore. This is exactly the opposite, he implied, of the prospects that natural scientists face: many frontiers to cross, much knowledge to be gained, real work to do.


Indeed, inquests abound. The annual meetings of the Modern Language Association have become somber opportunities for scholars to engage in painful rituals of self-diagnosis and confessions of despair. In 2006, Marjorie Perloff, then president of the organization and herself a productive and learned critic, admonished her colleagues that, unlike other members of the university community, they might well have been plying their trade without proper credentials: “Whereas economists or physicists, geologists or climatologists, physicians or lawyers must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice,” she said, “we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise.”


Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.


Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.


Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares.” The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.


Daniel Donoghue, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson last December that “our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” And Harvard’s well-known Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt also told the Crimson that the substance of the old survey will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.” But under the proposal, there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would have read by the time he or she graduates. The direction to which Harvard would lead its students in this “clean slate” or “trickle down” experiment is to suspend literary history, thrusting into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves. Greenblatt puts it this way: students should craft their own literary “journeys.” The professors might have little idea of where those journeys might lead, or how their paths might become errant. There will be no common destination.


As Harvard goes, so often go the nation’s other colleges and universities. Those who once strove to give order to the curriculum will have learned, from Harvard, that terms like core knowledge and foundational experience only trigger acrimony, turf protection, and faculty mutinies. No one has the stomach anymore to refight the Western culture wars. Let the students find their own way to knowledge.


For me, this turn of events has proven anything but happy or liberating. I have long wanted to believe that I am a member of a profession, a discipline to which I could, if fortunate, add my knowledge and skill. I have wanted to believe that this discipline had certain borders and limitations and that there were essential things to know, to preserve, and to pass on. But it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.



Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves—the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or “acting assistant professors.” These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.’s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn’t here anymore; our technology is obsolete.


I still teach, and do so with a veteran’s pride in what I know and what I hope I can give. My classrooms are, I hope, bright and sunny places where we can spend good time with Joyce’s Ulysses or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. But I know what some of my students sense, that what we do now faces an array of problems, any one of which might prove surmountable, but which together amount to an enervating spectacle. Fewer and fewer undergraduates are showing up in classrooms, mine and everyone else’s; the pleasure of undergraduate reading is everywhere blighted by worries about money and career; university administrators are more likely to classify “literary types” as budgetary liabilities than as assets; the disciplines we teach are in a free fall, as ideology, ethnicity, theory, gender, sexuality, and old-fashioned “close reading” spin away from any center of professional consensus about joint purposes; and the youngest would-be professionals, shrinking in number, stare at diminished job prospects.


It would be a pleasure to map a way out of this academic dead end. First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.


I have also wanted to believe that English and American literature constitutes a subject of study that is historically coherent and shaped by the intrinsic design of its own making. The causes giving it that shape can be analyzed, as can the merit and integrity of each of the achievements within it. And students, without whose energetic presence the study will wither, can be attracted to an activity—partly aesthetic and partly detective-like—in which they can participate along with teachers who bring enthusiasm to the work at hand. Like young scientists teaming together with older scientists at the same workbench, they can be made to feel that what they are doing makes sense, is shared by others, and will result in knowledge worth having. Perhaps they, the youngest generation, can labor with their teachers in putting together the house that has forfeited its sense of order. If they do, they can graduate with the knowledge that they possess something: a fundamental awareness of how a certain powerful literature was created over time, how its parts fit together, and how the process of creation has been renewed and changed through the centuries.


Some of their detective work could involve topics of great current interest—the role of race or gender or sexuality in the making of a work. But the focus would or should be on the books, not on the theories they can be made to support. English departments need not refight the Western culture wars. But they need to fight their own book wars. They must agree on which texts to teach and argue out the choices and the principles of making them if they are to claim the respect due a department of study.


They can also convert what many of them now consider a liability and a second-rate activity into a sizable asset. They can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but too often lacking among college graduates.


If nothing is done to put an end to the process of disintegration, the numbers will continue in a steady downward spiral. More and more of the teaching jobs in the humanities will be occupied by untenured part-timers (in English, it is now one in six). But the good news is that certain forms of intellectual history will still be written and will still be accessible to ordinary readers. Shakespeare’s plays will still be performed, even if largely unsponsored by departments of English. Literary biography will still command an appreciative readership. The better private institutions, aware of noblesse oblige, will prove kinder than large public institutions to the literary humanities, but even this solicitude will have its limits.


The study of literature will then take on the profile now held, with moderate dignity, by the study of the classics, Greek and Latin. For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss. As the Auden poem about another failure has it, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”


But we can, we must, do better. At stake are the books themselves and what they can mean to the young. Yes, it is just a literary tradition. That’s all. But without such traditions, civil societies have no compass to guide them. That boy falling out of the sky is not to be neglected.


Article printed from The American Scholar: http://www.theamericanscholar.org

URL to article: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-decline-of-the-english-department/



A Classical Education: Back to the Future

Stanley Fish, The New York Times, June 10, 2010


I wore my high school ring for more than 40 years. It became black and misshapen and I finally took it off. But now I have a new one, courtesy of the organizing committee of my 55th high school reunion, which I attended over the Memorial Day weekend.


I wore the ring (and will wear it again) because although I have degrees from two Ivy league schools and have taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Duke, Classical High School (in Providence, RI) is the best and most demanding educational institution I have ever been associated with. The name tells the story. When I attended, offerings and requirements included four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs — French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others. A student body made up of the children of immigrants or first generation Americans; many, like me, the first in their families to finish high school. Nearly a 100 percent college attendance rate. A yearbook that featured student translations from Virgil and original poems in Latin.


Sounds downright antediluvian, outmoded, narrow and elitist, and maybe it was (and is; the curriculum’s still there, with some additions like Japanese), but when I returned home I found three new books waiting for me, each of which made a case for something like the education I received at Classical. The books are Leigh A. Bortins’ “The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education,” Martha C. Nussbaum’s “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” and Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.”


Three more different perspectives from three more different authors could hardly be imagined.


Leigh A. Bortins writes as an engineer, a home schooling advocate and the C.E.O. of Classical Conversations, Inc. She sees learning “as a continuing conversation that humankind has been engaged in for centuries” and believes that the decisions we must make today will be better if they are informed by “classical content,” that is, by an awareness of what great thinkers of the past have made of the problems we encounter in the present. She wants her children and ours to “hear the collective wisdom of the ages” and “regularly consult the advice of wise and virtuous men and women” when faced with modern “predicaments.”


To this end, she proposes a two-pronged program of instruction: “classical education emphasizes using the classical skills to study classical content.” By classical skills she means imitation, memorization, drill, recitation and above all grammar, not grammar as the study of the formal structure of sentences (although that is part of it), but grammar as the study of the formal structure of anything: “Every occupation, field of study or concept has a vocabulary that the student must acquire like a foreign language . . . . A basketball player practicing the fundamentals could be considered a grammarian . . . as he repeatedly drills the basic skills, of passing dribbling, and shooting.” “Every student,” Bortins counsels, “must learn to speak the language of the subject.”


“Classical content” identifies just what the subjects to be classically studied are. They are the subjects informed and structured by “the ideas that make us human” — math, science, language, history, economics and literature, each of which, Bortins insists, can be mastered by the rigorous application of the skills of the classical Trivium, grammar, the study of basic forms, logic, the skill of abstracting from particulars and rhetoric, the ability to “speak and write persuasively and eloquently about any topic while integrating allusions and examples from one field of study to explain a point in another.” Assiduously practice, or as Bortins puts it, “overpractice” these skills, and “a student is prepared to study anything.”


Notably absent from Bortins’ vision of education is any mention of assessment outcomes, testing, job training (one of her sub-chapters is entitled “The Trivium Replaces Careerism”) and the wonders of technology. Her emphasis is solely on content and the means of delivering it. She warns against the narrowing distractions of “industrialization and technologies” and declares that “students would be better educated if they weren’t allowed to use computers . . . until they were proficient readers and writers.”


Martha Nussbaum, philosopher, classicist, ethicist and law professor, starts from the same place. She critiques the current emphasis on “science and technology” and the “applied skills suited to profit making” and she argues that the “humanistic aspects of science and social science — the imaginative and creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought — are . . . losing ground” as the humanities and the arts “are being cut away” and dismissed as “useless frills” in the context of an overriding imperative “to stay competitive in the global market.” The result, she complains, is that “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy” are being lost, especially the ability to “think critically,” the ability, that is, “to probe, to evaluate evidence, to write papers with well-structured arguments, and to analyze the arguments presented to them in other texts.”


While not the language of the Trivium (which Nussbaum knows well), it breathes the same spirit, and we might well be reading Bortins when Nussbaum praises the kind of course that pays “attention to logical structures” and thus “gives students templates that they can then apply to texts of many different types.” But this and related abilities will look “dispensable if what we want are marketable outputs of a quantifiable nature,” if we embrace an “economic growth” paradigm rather than a “human development paradigm.”


For Nussbaum, human development means the development of the capacity to transcend the local prejudices of one’s immediate (even national) context and become a responsible citizen of the world. Students should be brought “to see themselves as members of a heterogeneous nation . . . and a still more heterogeneous world, and to understand something of this history of the diverse groups that inhabit it.” Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others.


Unfortunately, at least according to Nussbaum, the trend toward a narrower and narrower vision of education is not being resisted by the Obama administration. Rather than decreasing the focus on testing and test preparation — a focus that reverses the relationship between test and content; the test becomes the content — “the administration plans to expand it.” Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan (who, says Nussbaum, “presided over a rapid decline in humanities and arts funding” as head of the Chicago public schools), continue to implement the assumptions driving the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, chiefly the assumption that “individual income and national economic progress” should be education’s main goals.


Diane Ravitch, noted historian and theorist of education, writes as someone who once strongly supported the promise and goals of No Child Left Behind but underwent a de-conversion in 2007: “Where once I had been hopeful, even enthusiastic, about the potential benefits of testing, accountability, choice, and markets, I now found myself experiencing profound doubts about these same ideas.”


Her conclusions, backed up by exhaustive research and an encyclopedic knowledge both of the literature and of situations on the ground, are devastating. The mantra of choice produced a “do your own thing” proliferation of educational schemes, “each with its own curriculum, and methods, each with its own private management, all competing for . . . public dollars” rather than laboring to discover “better ways of educating hard-to-educate students.” The emphasis on testing produced students who could “master test taking methods, but not the subject itself,” with the consequence that the progress claimed on the basis of test scores was an “illusion”: “The scores had gone up, but the students were not better educated.” A faith in markets produced gamesmanship, entrepreneurial maneuvering and outright cheating, very little reflection on “what children should know” and very little thought about the nature of the curriculum.


Ravitch, like Nussbaum, finds little hope in the policies of President Obama, who promised change but seems to have picked up “the same banner of choice, competition, and markets that had been the hallmark of his predecessors.” The result is that we continue to see “the shrinking of time available to teach anything other than reading and math; other subjects, including history, science, the arts, geography, even recess, were curtailed.”


Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Bortins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics, mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”


In short, get knowledgeable and well-trained teachers, equip them with a carefully calibrated curriculum and a syllabus filled with challenging texts and materials, and put them in a room with students who are told where they are going and how they are going to get there.


Worked for me.



Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics?


Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.


1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”


This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.


The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.


Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it was completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmogonical family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.




In other words, to read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings. We may therefore attempt the next definition:


2) We use the word “classics” for those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them.


In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, owing to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if the book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us. The definition we can give is therefore this:


3) The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.


There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing.


Hence, whether we use the verb “read” or the verb “reread” is of little importance. Indeed, we may say:


4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.


5) Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.


Definition 4 may be considered a corollary of this next one:


6) A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.


Whereas definition 5 depends on a more specific formula, such as this:


7) The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).


All this is true both of the ancient and of the modern classics. If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or expansions. When reading Kafka, I cannot avoid approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective “Kafkaesque,” which one is likely to hear every quarter of an hour, applied indiscriminately. If I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, I cannot help thinking how these characters have continued to be reincarnated right down to our own day.


The reading of a classic ought to give us a surprise or two vis-à-vis the notion that we had of it. For this reason I can never sufficiently highly recommend the direct reading of the text itself, leaving aside the critical biography, commentaries, and interpretations as much as possible. Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite. There is a very widespread topsyturviness of values whereby the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smoke screen to hide what the text has to say, and, indeed, can say only if left to speak for itself without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text does. We may conclude that:


8) A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives a lot of pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity. From all this we may derive a definition of this type:


9) The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.


Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader. If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.


It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book. I know an excellent art historian, an extraordinarily well-read man, who out of all the books there are has focused his special love on the Pickwick Papers; at every opportunity he comes up with some quip from Dickens’s book, and connects each and every event in life with some Pickwickian episode. Little by little he himself, and true philosophy, and the universe, have taken on the shape and form of the Pickwick Papers by a process of complete identification. In this way we arrive at a very lofty and demanding notion of what a classic is:


10) We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the “total book,” as Mallarmé conceived of it.


But a classic can establish an equally strong rapport in terms of opposition and antithesis. Everything that Jean-Jacques Rousseau thinks and does is very dear to my heart, yet everything fills me with an irrepressible desire to contradict him, to criticize him, to quarrel with him. It is a question of personal antipathy on a temperamental level, on account of which I ought to have no choice but not to read him; and yet I cannot help numbering him among my authors. I will therefore say:


11) Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.


I think I have no need to justify myself for using the word “classic” without making distinctions about age, style, or authority. What distinguishes the classic, in the argument I am making, may be only an echo effect that holds good both for an ancient work and for a modern one that has already achieved its place in a cultural continuum. We might say:


12) A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.


At this point I can no longer put off the vital problem of how to relate the reading of the classics to the reading of all the other books that are anything but classics. It is a problem connected with such questions as, Why read the classics rather than concentrate on books that enable us to understand our own times more deeply? or, Where shall we find the time and peace of mind to read the classics, overwhelmed as we are by the avalanche of current events?


We can, of course, imagine some blessed soul who devotes his reading time exclusively to Lucretius, Lucian, Montaigne, Erasmus, Quevedo, Marlowe, the Discourse on Method, Wilhelm Meister, Coleridge, Ruskin, Proust, and Valéry, with a few forays in the direction of Murasaki or the Icelandic sagas. And all this without having to write reviews of the latest publications, or papers to compete for a university chair, or articles for magazines on tight deadlines. To keep up such a diet without any contamination, this blessed soul would have to abstain from reading the newspapers, and never be tempted by the latest novel or sociological investigation. But we have to see how far such rigor would be either justified or profitable. The latest news may well be banal or mortifying, but it nonetheless remains a point at which to stand and look both backward and forward. To be able to read the classics you have to know “from where” you are reading them; otherwise both the book and the reader will be lost in a timeless cloud. This, then, is the reason why the greatest “yield” from reading the classics will be obtained by someone who knows how to alternate them with the proper dose of current affairs. And this does not necessarily imply a state of imperturbable inner calm. It can also be the fruit of nervous impatience, of a huffing-and-puffing discontent of mind.


Maybe the ideal thing would be to hearken to current events as we do to the din outside the window that informs us about traffic jams and sudden changes in the weather, while we listen to the voice of the classics sounding clear and articulate inside the room. But it is already a lot for most people if the presence of the classics is perceived as a distant rumble far outside a room that is swamped by the trivia of the moment, as by a television at full blast. Let us therefore add:


13) A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.


14) A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.


There remains the fact that reading the classics appears to clash with our rhythm of life, which no longer affords long periods of time or the spaciousness of humanistic leisure. It also contradicts the eclecticism of our culture, which would never be capable of compiling a catalog of things classical such as would suit our needs.


These latter conditions were fully realized in the case of Leopardi, given his solitary life in his father’s house (his “paterno ostello“), his cult of Greek and Latin antiquity, and the formidable library put at his disposal by his father, Monaldo. To which we may add the entire body of Italian literature and of French literature, with the exception of novels and the “latest thing out” in general, all of which were at least swept off into the sidelines, there to comfort the leisure of his sister Paolina (“your Stendhal,” he wrote her once). Even with his intense interest in science and history, he was often willing to rely on texts that were not entirely up-to-date, taking the habits of birds from Buffon, the mummies of Frederik Ruysch from Fontanelle, the voyage of Columbus from Robertson.


In these days a classical education like the young Leopardi’s is unthinkable; above all, Count Monaldo’s library has multiplied explosively. The ranks of the old titles have been decimated, while new ones have proliferated in all modern literatures and cultures. There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics. I would say that such a library ought to be composed half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count—leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries.


I realize that Leopardi is the only name I have cited from Italian literature—a result of the explosion of the library. Now I ought to rewrite the whole article to make it perfectly clear that the classics help us to understand who we are and where we stand, a purpose for which it is indispensable to compare Italians with foreigners and foreigners with Italians.


Then I ought to rewrite it yet again lest anyone believe that the classics ought to be read because they “serve any purpose” whatever. The only reason one can possibly adduce is that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics.


And if anyone objects that it is not worth taking so much trouble, then I will quote Cioran (who is not yet a classic, but will become one):


While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning a tune on the flute. “What good will it do you,” they asked, “to know this tune before you die?”


—translated by Patrick Creagh