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The Decline and Fall of Literature

The Death of Literature

by Alvin Kernan
Yale University Press, 230 pp., $15.00 (paper)

What’s Happened to the Humanities?

edited by Alvin Kernan
Princeton University Press, 267 pp., $29.95

The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies

by Michael Bérubé
New York University Press, 259 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities

by John M. Ellis
Yale University Press, 262 pp., $27.50

A couple of years ago, in an article explaining how funds for faculty positions are allocated in American universities, the provost of the University of California at Berkeley offered some frank advice to department chairs, whose job partly consists of lobbying for a share of the budget. “On every campus,” she wrote, “there is one department whose name need only be mentioned to make people laugh; you don’t want that department to be yours.”1 The provost, Carol Christ (who retains her faculty position as a literature professor), does not name the offender—but everyone knows that if you want to locate the laughingstock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English department.

The laughter, moreover, is not confined to campuses. It has become a holiday ritual for The New York Times to run a derisory article in deadpan Times style about the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, where thousands of English professors assemble just before the new year. Lately it has become impossible to say with confidence whether such topics as “Eat Me; Captain Cook and the Ingestion of the Other” or “The Semiotics of Sinatra” are parodies of what goes on there or serious presentations by credentialed scholars.2

At one recent English lecture, the speaker discussed a pornographic “performance artist” who, for a small surcharge to the price of admission to her stage show, distributes flashlights to anyone in the audience wishing to give her a speculum exam. By looking down at the mirror at just the right angle, she is able, she says, to see her own cervix reflected in the pupil of the beholder, and thereby (according to the lecturer) to fulfill the old Romantic dream of eradicating the distinction between perceiver and perceived. The lecturer had a winning phrase—“the invaginated eyeball”—for this accomplishment. During the discussion that followed, a consensus emerged that, in light of the optical trick, standard accounts (Erwin Panofsky’s was mentioned) of perspective as a constitutive element in Western visual consciousness need to be revised.

As English departments have become places where mass culture—movies, television, music videos, along with advertising, cartoons, pornography, and performance art—is studied side by side with literary classics, it has not been easy for the old-style department to adjust. The novelist Richard Russo captures the mood of such a department trying to come to terms with a (rather tame) new appointee named Campbell Wheemer, who “wore what remained of his thinning hair in a ponytail secured by a rubber band,” and who

startled his colleagues by announcing at the first department gathering of the year that he had no interest in literature per se. Feminist critical theory and image-oriented culture were his particular academic interests. He taped television sitcoms and introduced them into the curriculum in place of phallocentric, symbol-oriented texts (books). His students were not permitted to write. Their semester projects were to be done with video cameras and handed in on cassette. In department meetings, whenever a masculine pronoun was used, Campbell Wheemer corrected the speaker, saying, “Or she.”…Lately, everyone in the department had come to refer to him as Orshee.3

The only implausible note in this vignette is the cordiality with which it ends.

Bickering, backbiting, generational rift are not new, but something else is new. Outside the university, one hears a growing outcry of “Enough!” (it takes many forms, including a number of Bad Writing contests, in which English professors are routinely awarded top prizes), while within the field, the current president of the Modern Language Association, Edward Said, has caused a stir by lamenting the “disappearance of literature itself from the…curriculum” and denouncing the “fragmented, jargonized subjects” that have replaced it.4

One can discern the new feeling in the titles of several recent books whose tone is somewhere between a coroner’s report and an elegy. Alvin Kernan, formerly provost at Yale and dean of the graduate school at Princeton, and now senior adviser on the humanities to the Mellon Foundation, initiated the in memoriam theme with The Death of Literature (1990). More recently, the theme appears in, among other books, Literature Lost (1997), by John Ellis, a scholar of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, The Rise and Fall of English (1998), by Robert Scholes, a professor at Brown, and it is reprised in Kernan’s new book, a memoir of his fifty years in the academy, In Plato’s Cave.5 On the same obituary note, a front-page story in the Times reported a few months ago that the English Department at Duke University—the “cutting-edge” department of the Eighties—had collapsed into factions so bitter that the dean placed it under the direction of a botanist whose field of expertise is, appropriately, plant respiration.

What does it all mean? Should the teaching of English be given a decent burial, or is there life in it yet?


Literature in English has been a respectable university subject for barely a century. The scholar of Scottish and English ballads Francis James Child was appointed to the first chair in English at Harvard in 1876; the English honors degree was not established at Oxford until 1894. Almost from the start there have been periodic announcements from a distinguished roster of Jeremiahs that liberal education, with literary studies at its core, is decadent or dying. In 1925, John Jay Chapman looked at American higher education and, finding Greek and Latin classics on the wane, proclaimed “the disappearance of the educated man.” Some fifty years later, not long before he died, Lionel Trilling gave a paper on “The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal”—a title that understated the pessimism of the paper itself.6

Yet during this half-century of putative decline, the study of literature—measured by the attraction it held for students and young faculty—was booming. During the unprecedented expansion of American higher education in the 1960s, in my own department at Columbia, scores of candidates registered each year for the MA degree, and many went on for the Ph.D. Today, all this has changed. The number of Ph.D.s in English awarded annually in the United States peaked in the mid-1970s at nearly 1,400. Since then, the number has dropped by almost one third—a trend consistent with the contraction of the humanities (literature, language, philosophy, music, and art) as a whole, which fell as a percentage of all Ph.D.s from 13.8 percent to 9.1 percent between 1966 and 1993. In the same period, the percentage represented by the humanities of all BAs granted in the United States dropped from 20.7 percent to 12.7 percent.7

Even if one takes consumer appeal as a measure of value (as Chapman and Trilling did not), student attrition does not necessarily amount to an indictment of the field for some intellectual failing. For one thing, the decline in humanities students relative to other fields reflects the fact that the postwar expansion took place especially in the previously underemphasized fields of science and technology. With increased access to college for many students whose social and economic circumstances would once have excluded them, vocational fields such as business, economics, engineering, and, most recently, computer programming have also burgeoned. Moreover, as the historian Lynn Hunt points out, the average age of American undergraduates has risen sharply in recent years, and older students tend to pursue subjects that have practical value for finding a job.
But it is also true that many “traditional” students (the new term for those who used to be referred to as “college age”) are turning away from literature in particular and from the humanities in general already in high school. Among the millions who take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), usually given in the tenth grade, only 9 percent indicate interest in the humanities. Even at so-called elite institutions, humanities enrollments have leveled off or fallen (at Harvard College, 25 percent of the students—and only 15 percent of male students—now concentrate in humanistic subjects).8 Many who once might have taken time for reading and contemplation now tend to regard college, in Trilling’s prescient phrase, “as a process of accreditation, with an economic/social end in view.” It is always dispiriting to find young people feeling they have no time to “waste”; and even at Ivy League schools, where financial aid, though imperiled, remains relatively generous, it is common nowadays to hear students say they must find a way to finish in three years in order to limit their indebtedness and to get on to “real work.”

There is a correlation, if not a clear sequence of cause and effect, between the decline in student numbers and the dwindling job market for new professors of literature and other humanistic subjects. Since science and other competing fields now command a much greater share of university resources than they once did, humanities professors who earned their degrees during the expansion of the 1960s are not being replaced at the same pace at which they are retiring. Therefore, at a time when the United States has historically low unemployment rates, “the ratio of dignified academic jobs to the number of doctoral graduates” in the humanities, according to Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and formerly chair of the English department at the University of Michigan, “is perhaps one to three even when we count optimistically.”

One reflection of what Kernan calls the “catastrophically depressed” job market was the recent graduate student strike at Yale over wages and benefits (in which humanities students played a large part). Administrators and senior faculty tend to regard the teaching duties of graduate students as part of their apprenticeship for the career for which they are being trained. But students facing a dead end at the conclusion of their studies may reasonably regard their duties as exploitation by a university that gets high-quality labor from them at low cost, only to replace them with a new supply of temporary workers in the persons of the next crop of Ph.D. candidates. 9

While in the last ten years or so, the number of English Ph.D.s has remained relatively constant or even risen slightly, some English departments (including Yale’s) have responded conscientiously to the employment crisis by reducing the number of incoming candidates for the Ph.D. to as few as ten—which then creates a shortage of teachers to staff composition and introductory courses. Completing the circle, the shortfall is made up by hiring, at minimal wages and with no benefits at all, part-time faculty drawn from the growing pool of unemployed Ph.D.s who were “apprentices” just a few years before.

These unsustainable trends tell us nothing about what actually goes on in the classroom, where, if there is a certain amount of gynecology-as-epistemology nonsense, there is still plenty of intelligence and passion on the part of both full-time and part-time faculty. But these developments do help to explain the fractious mood of the contemporary English department. Literature is a field whose constituency and resources are shrinking while its subject is expanding. Even as English loses what budget-conscious deans like to call “market share,” it has become routine to find notices in the department advertising lectures on such topics as the evolution of Batman from comic-book crusader to camp TV star to macho movie hero alongside posters for a Shakespeare conference.

  1. 1

    Carol Christ, “Retaining Faculty Lines,” Profession 1997 (Modern Language Association, 1997), p. 55.

  2. 2

    The first (fictional) title is from James Hynes, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror (Picador, 1997), p. 51; the second is from the program of the 1996 MLA convention.

  3. 3

    Richard Russo, Straight Man (Random House, 1997), p. 15.

  4. 4

    Edward Said, “Restoring Intellectual Coherence,” in MLANewsletter, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 1999), p. 3.

  5. 5

    These books are by older scholars. But, as Thomas Nagel has noted (The New Republic, October 12, 1998, p. 34), there has been “a shift in the climate of opinion,” including that of younger critics, “so that insiders with doubts about the intelligibility of all this ‘theory’ are no longer reluctant to voice them.” An early sign of the change was Frank Lentricchia’s renunciation of theory in Lingua Franca (September/October 1996, p. 64): “Tell me your theory and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven’t read.” More recently, leading critics (in this case, Margery Sabin, in Raritan, Summer 1999, p. 140), have begun to lament that “it has become so much easier to identify what is not literary study, and what are not humanistic values, than to say what they are or ought to be.”

  6. 6

    Chapman, “The Disappearance of the Educated Man,” Vanity Fair, July 1925; Trilling, The Last Decade: Essays and Reviews, 1965-75 (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979), pp. 160-176.

  7. 7

    These figures come from a 1999 MLA report on “Ph.D. placement and production,” and from the statistical appendix to What’s Happened to the Humanities?, Kernan’s collection of essays by twelve leading scholars. In the same period, English majors actually show a modest increase as a percentage of the declining portion of humanities degrees—in part attributable, as Frank Kermode remarks (What’s Happened, p. 169), to the influx “of women students still denied the early training required for the sciences,” and, it might be surmised, to the fact that as American students became overwhelmingly monolingual, classics and foreign literature departments shriveled into tiny enclaves—leaving English on most campuses as the only literary game in town. To put the statistics in perspective, it should be noted that in many universities, history is classified as a social science.

  8. 8

    Lynn Hunt, “Tradition Confronts Change: The Place of the Humanities in the University,” in The Humanist on Campus: Continuity and Change, American Council of Learned Societies, Occasional Paper No. 44, p. 8; James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, “The Market-Model University,” Harvard Magazine (May-June 1998), pp. 50, 54. One striking sign of these trends is that in the latest version of the widely derided, but widely read, university rankings published annually by US News and World Report, the California Institute of Technology has risen to first place (dislodging Harvard) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to third. While the criteria for these rankings are highly suspect, they both reflect and influence public opinion.

  9. 9

    Robert Weisbuch, “The Humanist on Campus—and Off-Kilter,” in The Humanist on Campus, p. 1; on the Yale strike, see Andrew Hacker, “Who’s Sticking to the Union?” The New York Review, February 18, 1999, pp. 45-48.

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