When I took my Bachelor's in English many years ago, I earned my degree by studying English literature and history. And what a rich literature and history it is! One course I took in Irish Literature had a reading list a mile long. Most of James Joyce (Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, parts of Finnegan's Wake, even, though we weren't required to understand it, thank goodness), many plays by George Bernard Shaw and John Millintong Synge, Frank O'Connor's lovely stories, and nearly the entire body of work of the marvelous WB Yeats. And that was just one course, one semester. I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life, reading and writing, and we even put on one of Yeats's Noh-style Plays, in masks, no less. It was a delicious, lively time and I had a ball.
I've worked in an English department now for many years, and have sorrowfully watched as all the good, rich wonderful courses on Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, the Enlightenment, the Romantic poets were retired in favor of politically correct nonsense or abstract theory — deconstruction finally seems to have deconstructed itself and died out, but for a while there it was enthroned. Marxist and/or sexuality-based courses became the rage. There may still be a token Shakespeare or Chaucer course, but the syllabus will invariably describe that the students will be looking at the work of these two masters in terms of discrimination against women or how racism "informs" their work.
Gendering the Narrative was the actual name of a course taught here. Who knows what it was about? I recall hearing a description of the course, but like all that PC blather it goes in one ear and quickly out the other. It sounded dreadfully boring. I mean, would you pay $1200 for sexual/gender indoctrination? I hope not!
And more and more, neither will the students. And their parents sure don't want to fork over that kind of dough for such rot, and so, slowly but more certainly than ever, less and less students are becoming English majors. After all, if all the trendy professors want to do is talk about TV (Star Trek and Twin Peaks were hits of a recent course) and pop culture, why should students want to study what they can just watch on, well, TV?
Other humanities disciplines are the same way, too many intellectually vapid PC courses, and not enough of the strong, resilient, traditional canon. Anthropology is really sterile ground; its course listing shows more PC courses than ever before.
Here's a really choice example:
"ANTHROPOLOGY 202 Modern Social Theory: Key Texts and Issues Description:
This course involves close reading of selected texts by three authors who established the framework of modern social theory. Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Readings will focus on each author's attempt to comprehend the possibilities and pathologies of industrial capitalism. The course addresses both the future of the US in a global capitalist economy and the search for community in contemporary American society. In addition to classic works, readings will include contemporary books such as The Work of Nations by Robert Reich and Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault."
Classic socialist political correctness, in other words. And boring as hell. Can you imagine paying to read a book by the intellectual (and otherwise) pipsqueak Robert Reich?
Students are not enrolling in these courses — or at least enrollment is down. Hmmmm. Maybe some of these students even have brains beneath their pink hair and nose rings. It is a possibility, albeit remote.
The upshot is, we're losing students, and the humanities in general are losing our share of the University pie. And frankly, that's a good thing.
It just might teach everyone a real lesson.
October 7, 2000
Patricia Sharon Neill is managing editor of a scholarly journal on the life and work of William Blake, the 18th-century artist and poet.
© 2000 by Patricia Sharon Neill