Review of the Rise and Fall of English

The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing a Discipline by Robert Scholes
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published by Yale University Press
Publication date: March 1998
ISBN: 0300071515
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg in Authors Review of Books, May 25, 1998

In the beginning, there were no English professors. . . . and then there were far too many of them. In The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing a Discipline, Robert Scholes, Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Brown University, sets out to describe what has happened to English between then and now.

The book opens with a guided tour of the early history of English in America. This section makes for some interesting and enjoyable reading. Scholes is clearly nostalgic for days gone by, both before critical theory and the “New Criticism” that preceded it:

In the good old days, before there were professors of English, there were teachers of oratory and belles lettres who themselves practiced belletristic oratory. They did what they taught and they taught what they did. No wonder they were respected by those who came to learn from them. (9)

In his encapsulated history of the discipline, Scholes latches onto one Yale professor of English, Billy Phelps, who taught from 1892-1933, for whom professing English was a form of evangelism. Phelps saw himself as “a popularizer, a teacher, and of course, a preacher” (17). For Scholes, Phelps represents the heights from which English has fallen. The “professionalization” of English since then, first via T.S. Eliot/Cleanth Brook’s brand of New Criticism, and then via critical theory, represent for Scholes a process of moving further and further away from the mission of teaching undergraduates rhetorical skills and the “love of truth” that Phelps once preached from his platform at Yale.

Scholes’ project in The Rise and Fall of English is an ambitious one:

What I am trying to do in this book is work through the very complex situation of a field of study the seems to me hollow, falling, though perhaps not yet visibly fallen. I shall also try to offer solutions, at various levels, to the problems I discern. (18)

Though most in English would disagree with Scholes that our field is “hollow,” or that its common practice is what Scholes calls “hypocriticism,” most would nonetheless agree that something is rotten in the state of English. Across the country, battles are being quietly waged in seminar rooms and committee meetings for the “soul” of English. The discipline itself is in a state of not knowing what it is. Scholes might be said to represent a middle ground between the “old school” approach, which emphasizes English (meaning the literature of England) as a form of inherited historical and cultural knowledge and the “theory camp” which emphasizes various forms of cultural and linguistic analysis grouped under the rubric of critical theory. Scholes makes two general observations which form the basis for his extrapolations and proposed solutions:

1) English is now a foreign literature in (relatively) familiar language. . . . We can no longer take it for granted that the literature of England (as opposed to literatures in English) should be the center of English Studies.

2) Literature in general, which once seemed to be an in itself because it led directly to transcendental values (“the kingdom of light”) is now seen, both positively and negatively, as politically interested. (21)

Without getting into the philosophical quagmire (which Scholes visits more than once in this book) of trying to define “Truth,” I’ll agree that these two statements “ring true.” It would be foolish to think that we, in America, should offer courses only in the literature of a dead Empire whose literary history, while rich and worth dipping into, is essentially no longer our own. There is no longer one English canon. We now have American, Canadian, Australian, African, Irish, Asian [this list could go on and on] literatures in English. While nobody is proposing that we stop carrying the banner of Shakespeare, the time has come to acknowledge (if we haven’t already) that the world is now far larger than the British Empire, and so is the range of materials that English as a discipline can and should explore. And of course, literature is politically interested. Much of the work of 20th Century philosophy writ large has been in revealing the relationships between culture and ideology. While there is still room for aesthetics, to deny that texts are politically interested would, at this point, simply be silly.

However, as Scholes says, there is a sense that the discourses of the discipline as a whole are somewhat out of step with public perceptions of what English should be:

The truth about what we are doing is not pretty. The spate of recent attacks on universities, and especially on their humanities faculties, has been both dangerous and infuriating. These books and essays offend us partly because they are full of distortions if not out right lies. But they also worry us because even the worst of them often catches some glimpse of a troubling reality. (47)

The New York Times seems to take a certain mean-spirited delight in knocking down English, annually lambasting crit-speak in a cartoonish manner. But Scholes is right: there is a degree to which English has become over-sub-compartmentalized: that we have become so specialized, so entrenched in our own jargon, that we can no longer even explain what exactly it is that we do in layman’s terms. No wonder English has bad P.R.! Professionalized discourse has it’s place — when scholars get together, they ought to be able to discuss the terms of their debates with precision. But when it has gotten to a point where they can’t translate what they are saying to a room full of undergraduate students, it has gotten to the point of being a problem. There is a definite need for what Michael Berubé calls the “public intellectual,” English professionals who can write about what they do in a language that the public can digest. The discourse of English should not be whispered in a closed room, but available to any who care to listen in. Scholes links this problem of over-specialization in particular to the fact that many of the “best” faculty in English departments teach only graduate students:

. . . most university professors would rather teach graduate students than undergraduates, and many reasons are advanced for this situation. But the most telling reason is seldom even considered–perhaps because it exposes too deeply the futility of our enterprise. I believe that most professors are comfortable teaching graduate students because graduate students are expected to lead lives in which the reading of literary texts will continue to play a vital role. That is, at the supposed summit of our profession, the ideal to be attained is the teaching of English literature to people who are themselves in the process of becoming teachers of English literature. (79)

I’m with Scholes on this one. If English professors at a major university aren’t teaching at least half their course load to undergraduates, they’re doing something wrong. They’re forgetting the main reason that they’re at the university to begin with–to teach. The comforts of a shared language should not come at the sacrifice of quality undergraduate education, which will always necessarily be the primary mission of English departments.

Overall, Scholes calls for a return to a emphasis on teaching our students to be better thinkers, readers, and communicators. He calls for a focus on “textuality.” His argument makes a lot of sense, given the way that the discipline has developed over the past several decades, and given that our primary mission is to educate undergraduates who will not become Ph.D.s in English. At this point in the “history of English,” it makes sense to study “texts” writ large. I think that the biting satire of a contemporary cultural artifact like The Simpsons, for instance, bears just as much relevance for undergraduate study today as does The Dunciad. We need to get our students to understand that what they learn about texts in English class is also applicable in the world that they live in, in the present tense. All literary theory is a form of cultural study. When we focus on the skills that we are teaching undergraduates, rather than on teaching English as a historical subject, the sphere of texts available for study widens considerably.

Scholes makes a lot of arguments in The Rise and Fall of English, and the majority, though not all of them, make sense. His trouble with the erosion of the concept of “truth” seems, to me, a little nostalgic and to a degree beside the point, but his overall focus on the importance of undergraduate education bears consideration. Scholes has a clear sense of his own mission as a teacher. These are the words of one who cares about his subject, who cares about his discipline, who cares about what his students learn from him. When he gets into the specifics of his plan, there is plenty of room to quibble with him. For instance, his proposal for solving the problem of English employment — by extending the indenture of Ph.D. students from 5 or 6 to 10 years — didn’t make a lot of realistic sense on a system-wide basis. But when you get into the specifics of any plan for systemic change, there are bound to be a few rough spots.

Scholes’ views, as represented in The Rise and Fall of English, are not the only ones to be heard on the issues at play as English undergoes its next transformation, but his is a lucid voice that English professionals should take the time to listen to as they prepare for the next wave of disciplinary self-fashioning.

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