Duke Pesta offers Martin Center readers ideas for improving the relevance of university English departments.

A major in English was once a serious endeavor masquerading as a frivolous one. Despite the occasional “do you want fries with that?” condescension from business or science students, the study of literature—immersion in its aesthetic, historical, and philosophical contexts—conserved for posterity a reservoir of truth and paid forward for humanity a legacy of beauty that inspired business to philanthropize the arts, and science to technologize our access to the great authors.

Today, a major in English is an increasingly frivolous endeavor masquerading as a serious one.

English departments no longer view our literary heritage as necessary for maintaining a shared set of cultural values. Moral truths and objective beauties are deconstructed away, and postmodern approaches to language and text stress instead political ideology, ethical relativism, and hostility to aesthetics, authorial intent, and the ability of language to convey meaning. As a result, students in English encounter fewer works of high literary achievement and more polemical texts—including graphic novels, comic books, and sociological screeds—as a way of resisting the “privileged” status of literature.

Predictably, the gutting of literary canons and values triggers the current exodus from the major. Students of literature are fewer and ever less prepared to understand complicated books. A shallow politicization of texts displaces study and engagement with the cultures out of which the literature arose. Students cannot, for instance, follow the logic or pathos of Hamlet’s words to Ophelia, but “know” that he oppresses her as a prince, a white man, and an unapologetic male. Perhaps they also recognize how empty such tangential virtue-signaling leaves them, and how disconnected from the play.

Follow the link above to read Pesta’s prescription for addressing the problem.