Monday, June 24, 2013

Speaking up for English

In the New York Times on 23rd June (, Verlyn Klinkenborg outlined the so-called 'decline' of the English Major, unhappily conflating the apparent crisis in the Humanities with the falling numbers of students studying English and confusing the issue by lamenting these same English students' alleged inability to write clearly. (What students, by the way, would want to study with a tutor who complained in such a blanket fashion about them?)

There's so much one can say about this article. First, Klinkenborg's experience is not my experience. Some students write beautifully from the outset; others need more time to learn. It was ever thus. It is my job to teach my students the skills they need to be the best that they can be. Secondly, as pointed out here ( and here ( [a reference via Michael Bérubé at]), the figures depend on the particular data being manipulated. It was ever thus... again.

But in between the hand-wringing and the prophecies of a Humanities apocalypse, there are two things that strike me as particularly myopic.

1. The first is the common use of the English Literature and Language undergraduate degree as the whipping boy of 'the Humanities'. The 'Humanities'--or, more appropriately, 'Arts'--are much more than just English.

2. The second point is that a good English degree is much more than just 'writing' and 'reading'. A good English degree will train a student in all areas of English Literature. In the study of early literary texts, for example, the skills imparted by reading Old English or Middle English are not only 'clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature', as Klinkenborg lists, but also patience and meticulousness in the acquisition of translation skills, problem solving at the level of the individual lexeme, team work in class efforts to make sense of tricky syntax, empathy with a literary corpus at first so alien, tolerance of others' beliefs and expression of those beliefs, and so on. Thus, when we talk about an 'English degree', let's remember the field of English is itself varied and broad: it is not a single, uniform set of literary materials; it is not a narrow, individual set of tools. At its best, the field of English is diverse, chronologically capacious, concerned with minutiae as well as big pictures, focused on translation and interpretation as well as reading and writing. As a teacher, I am determined to teach students that what is difficult is worth pursuing; that the hardest work is usually the most rewarding. And as practitioners, we might remind ourselves that this Humanities 'crisis', while hyperbolic now, could actually become self-fulfilling if we continue to talk about our field in the negative ways we've so often seen recently.