Ugly Trend

Pulling the Plug on English Departments

The armies of soft philistinism are on the march and eager to ditch traditional literature instruction in favor of more utilitarian approaches. To the barricades!

Enrique de la Osa/Reuters

It is easy to observe the sad and sickly decline of American intellectual life, through the cultural and institutional lowering of standards, when prestigious publications promote the defense, if not the celebration, of lower standards.

Writing recently in The New Republic on the seemingly inevitable death of the college English department, James Pulizzi represents the shortsighted techno-boosterism and foolish progressivism that is rendering American culture increasingly superficial and frivolous.

“Within a few decades, contemporary literature departments will be largely extinct,” Pulizzi submits before predicting that “communications, composition, and media studies will take English’s place.”

Rather than expressing anxiety, or at least, worry over the impending destruction of one of the only mechanisms for introducing young Americans to a pillar of art, human history, and the Western tradition, Pulizzi credulously asks, “Why should college students read narrative prose when they get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games?”

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously indicted the cultural condition of “defining deviancy down.” As standards migrate from the mountain to the basement, the formerly vulgar, indecent, and stupid becomes the norm. One can easily see how eventually thinkers like Pulizzi will delete a few words from their rhetorical question to simply ask, “Why should college students read?”

Given that American higher education has consistently cut the humanities (the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, and state university system of New York are the most recent examples), and given that college graduates routinely report an easing of reading requirements, the future of a text-free college education does not seem outlandish.

In the meantime, one has to conclude that Pulizzi, and the camp of soft philistinism he represents, have all of their work in media studies ahead of them. The value of reading “narrative prose” is the equivalent of an intellectual bank vault because, for one reason among many, it differs, and therefore has a different effect on the brain, from audiovisual storytelling. And that is precisely why college students should read instead of relying on HBO and the makers of Grand Theft Auto to hone their understanding and appreciation of narrative.

Marshall McLuhan long ago argued the now accepted thesis that different mediums have different influences on thinking. “The medium is the message,” as he put it, because the way a medium communicates with the brain alters the brain, and for that reason, possesses a transformative power over the consumer, independent of its content. A person watching television eight hours a day is going to think and react to stimuli differently than someone reading a book for eight hours. It doesn’t matter if the television viewer is tuned into PBS or pornography, or if the reader is flipping through the pages of Stephanie Meyer or Leo Tolstoy. Not for its entertainment value or ability to provoke thought, but in many significant ways, a bad novel is better for the brain than a good movie.

Reading, and most especially reading a novel, strengthens the attention span, because it requires sustained focus on a visually and aurally dull product. The more interactive the medium, the more it will stunt the attention span. In this regard, the difference between reading a novel and learning a story through an “interactive video game” is the difference of musicianship between those who learn to play the guitar and those who master Guitar Hero. It is the gap in strength training between someone who bench-presses at the gym, and someone who counts reps on a bodybuilding video game.

Studies and experiments also demonstrate that reading comprehension and retention rates are superior among people who read from a printed page as opposed to those who get their information from an electronic screen.

Considering that reading a bad novel is better for intellectual development than receiving narrative from an electronic messenger, the benefits multiply when reading a good literary novel. A study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano from the New School for Social Research shows that literary fiction helps readers more effectively discern the beliefs, motivations, and emotions in the people around them. Literature, the authors conclude, “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.”

While far from a cure all for social ills, literature, more than any other medium, increases and enhances the ability to empathize.

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Any lover of literature, however, knows that its greatest gift is nothing that any scholar reviewing tables of data or any scientist in a laboratory could measure. It is the enchantment of experiencing life through the consciousness of another human being, albeit an invented one, and gaining unique access to the vantage point gained by entering the mind of its inventor.

Literature more than any other human creation promises the primacy of the individual, and places a premium on individuated experience. In an overly organized and broadcasted society, and in a culture of self-surveillance that collectivizes every individual act and belief through social media and crowd sourcing, literature asks, “What makes the individual—in quiet moments, lost in the beauty and terror of his own mind and heart—sad, affectionate, lonely, satisfied? What makes the individual tick?

The reader sits alone, absorbing the life of a character, and gaining the literary sensibility of going through life with the antenna of the eyes and ears turned and tuned toward story. Solitude activates the imagination, and invites introspection. It is not the superficial aspect or the end of experience that matters as much as the details—the “beads of sweat running down a wine bottle” that Ernest Hemingway found seductive during a dinner party.

The greatness of literature is that it inspires the benevolence of the imagination by ushering an internal escape from the contracting tedium of everyday existence, while still keeping the reader, somehow, rooted in reality.

Just as any lover of literature is well acquainted with the romance of opening a new book by an old literary friend, any instructor of literature is aware that most college students have little interest in literature, and would not read it without the mandate of general education requirements and the facilitation from English departments.

Defending the death of the English department is to defend pulling the plug on the life support unit of an already struggling art.

English departments must continue to emphasize the printed word, and the fact that most students are resistant to narrative through text is all the more reason for conservatism. Higher education should challenge students, not coddle them by indulging their pre-formed biases and preferences.

There is plenty of room for adaptation and adjustment. Integrating mixed media (film, television, music) into the literature classroom makes the instruction more exciting, the conversation more invigorating, and the contemporary relevance of literature more intelligible.

In my experience, and according to the reports of many English instructors, students respond better to creative writing, and interesting composition courses—not just term paper training—than they do to literature courses. The American attitude of utilitarianism, and the fixation on practicality, means that young people, even in the humanities, want to know they are doing something tangible with the knowledge they require, and not just reading and thinking.

The culture, however, needs to provide space for the readers and thinkers, and it needs to elevate literature to a place of prominence. The death of the English Department will become a signifying act, confirming to college students their boneheaded beliefs that literature is a waste of time.

In Gore Vidal’s second memoir, the beautifully and elegiacally written Point to Point Navigation, he recalls once hearing William Faulkner “compare literature to dog breeders—few in number, but passionate to the point of madness on bloodlines.”

American culture is already turning against serious fiction, and eventually the literary novel may wind up on the dusty, hard-to-reach shelf currently occupied by poetry. When universities board up their English departments, they surrender to ignorance and laziness. But at least the dog breeders will still have Westminster.