Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Here is the original Heather MacDonald piece that prompted Matt Blakenship’s Ricochet musing about whether you should let your child major in English, which I proceeded to riff on below.

I highly recommended it. While I’m sure there’s something by Mr. Bhabha worth reading, he set himself up for MacDonald being able to cherry-pick the quote that follows. Let’s have MacDonald set it up:

A recent Harvard report, cochaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57 percent of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic ? closure ? of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . .” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?

This bit was also good:

We have bestowed on the faculty the best job in the world: freed from the pressures of economic competition, professors are actually paid to spend their days wandering among the most sublime creations of mankind. All we ask of them in return is that they sell their wares to ignorant undergraduates. Every fall, insistent voices should rise from the... ..academic departments saying: here is greatness... Here is Aeschylus, whose hypnotic choruses bear witness to dark forces more unsettling than you can yet fathom. Here is Mark Twain, Hapsburg Vienna, and the Saint Matthew Passion...

Instead, the professoriate is tongue-tied when it comes to promoting the wonders of its patrimony. These privileged cowards can’t even summon the guts to prescribe the course work that every student must complete in order to be considered educated.

That refers back to the incident that initially stoked her piece, one of the few remaining high-quality and thus popular English departments, UCLA’s, surrendering its Milton/Shakespeare/Chaucer requirement for the major back in 2011.

So when an informed commenter, an actual English grad student, tries assures me in my post below that the over-politicization of English that occurred in the 90s has largely passed, and that it is wrong for me to use the adjective “ideological” to describe the spirit of most English departments today, he needs to explain why things like this UCLA incident keep happening.  According to MacDonald, it happened not at the insistence of baby-boomer leftist leftovers, but at the insistence of the junior faculty.  So we should expect more of this to come.

And what did they replace the Milton/Shakespeare/Chaucer requirement with? A toothless bureaucrat-speak mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing. Now while UCLA’s English faculty might hire prospective professors they suspect of being conservative in some manner to teach “genre” or “interdisciplinary” studies, or “creative writing,” notice that they in fact structurally discriminate against such prospective profs with every other category listed there, and making these the new requirements.  And of course they know it.

So, fewer profs zeroed in on Chaucer and such, and more that know how to plausibly market themselves as focused on one of those areas.  And do note:  if you are someone suspected of being a conservative or otherwise traditionalist, let’s see how easy it is for you when you try to get a journal article published on an officially “ethnicity”- or “gender”-related major author.

But back to MacDonald. Those of us who have wrestled with a thinker like Strauss, or one like Augustine for that matter, know that falling in love with the likes of Cicero, Livy, and Horace, the way Petrarch did, is a more problematic story than the beautiful affair MacDonald recounts. But compared to Bhabha’s agenda, we’ll take such problematic passion any day. And of course, it is well to remember that there are some issues between philosophers and poets.  Since we’re talking about the teaching of literature, MacDonald is right to let one of its most breathless champions speak for it.

Who in our English departments will stand up and fight for the Spirit of Petrarch?

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles