Politics and poor English

The Harvard English department announced plans this week to restructure its curriculum for undergraduates. “We are diminishing the role of chronology as the absolute, as the only organising rubric,” the professor Daniel Donoghue told the website Inside Higher Ed, “to combine it with genres and with geography as equally viable ways of thinking about literature and studying literature.” The standard survey course on the literature of the British Isles, English 10, must go. The new system will allow more focus.

There is nothing wrong with focus. As Matthew Arnold wrote: “A schoolboy, who, as they did in the times of ignorance at Eton, read his Homer and Horace through, and then read them through again, and so went on until he knew them by heart, is not, in my opinion, so very much to be pitied.” But such immersion is not what Harvard has in mind. Its plans reveal a confusion about what a college English department is supposed to do and reopen the question of whether English is a worthy subject of university study.

Under the new regime, students will take courses in four “affinity groups” or “common-ground modules”: “Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions” and “Shakespeares”. Two of these (“Poets” and “Shakespeares”) are consistent with English as it has been taught at Harvardfor a century. The other two are not. “There is no such thing as writing that is indigenous or ‘native’ to England,” runs a copy of the department’s guidelines for “Arrivals” obtained by the Harvard Crimson. “All the great writing between the 7th and the 12th century is produced by invaders and immigrants who knew that ‘they’ came from somewhere else.”

This is a banality dressed up as a provocation. English literature surveys have always stressed the influence on English writers of foreign ones. To understand Wyatt and Surrey (not to mention Shakespeare), it helps to know Petrarch. You get more out of Pope if you have read Boileau and more out of Coleridge, Carlyle and George Eliot if you know German. English 10 will teach you that. If literary influences were what Harvard wanted to stress, there would be no reason to scrap its current approach. “Arrivals” appears to be a pretext for teaching more about migration, building a bridge to the doctrines of post-colonial and cultural studies in which the many professors are heavily invested. The description of “Diffusions” reveals similar preoccupations: “What is this nation, ecosystem, town, region, community, continent? What does it mean to belong to a where, and what are the signs, and forms, and idioms, of belonging – and unbelonging.” Again, there is not much to disagree with in those sentences, even if there is plenty to edit and punctuate.

The goal is to take the most superficial, unliterary and easily politicised aspects of the study of English and pretend they are the throbbing heart of the whole enterprise. This makes things easier for both students and professors. It fits English literature into categories of thought that the prospective US English major already possesses before he has ever opened a novel or read a poem. All such a reader will find in Chaucer and Dickens are stodgy versions of our own political dramas over immigration and minorities, identities and rights.

There is chauvinism in this. While English may have become a world language, it is in its infancy as a world literature. America’s literary output has been, considering the country’s size and dynamism, feeble. Literary critics used to face this failure with humility, but that virtue has been on the wane. A furious op-ed in the Crimson in 1990 complained not only of the English department’s “disregard of the literature of minorities and colonised peoples” but also of the under-representation of Americans. Of the 30 courses, only nine dealt with US literature. That is certainly too few on nationalist grounds even if it is too many on literary ones.

Harvard’s English department was always relatively conservative. The battle between English 10 (chronology) and Humanities 6 (themes and genres) was waged at the end of the 1950s. Chronology won. Walter Jackson Bate, the great biographer of Samuel Johnson, banished “Hum 6” on the grounds that it left students ignorant of a lot of basic material. English 10 was still nettling scholars in the 1980s, when I took it. Roughly half the faculty pined for an English department more like Yale’s or Princeton’s, which were quicker to embrace “deconstruction”, “theory” and cultural studies. Freed of the need to master, say, Milton, junior faculty could devote their reading hours to continental semioticians.

Today, a note to would-be majors on the Harvard English website shows that theory has won there, too: “To ask how and why writers of different times and places have represented men and women (or the rich and the poor, or the coloniser and the colonised) as they have done is the question that compels cultural studies – a form of history and anthropology combined.” This is Harvard’s invitation to “the best that has been thought and said”? Even 25 years ago, we assumed that spending four years with Shakespeare, Donne and Keats was self-evidently “worth it”. Yet here is someone in the English department who feels that, to appeal, English literature must be passed off as anthropology.

An accusation that has beset English since it caught on as an academic discipline in the 1850s is that it is idleness masquerading as scholarship. This view was once held to be the badge of hard-headed businessmen and other philistines. But all those who believe that English is not a real field of study until it is garlanded with practical or political concerns embrace a version of it, even if they do so from the heights of a university English department.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

More columns at www.ft.com/caldwell

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