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In a recent essay in First Things, Mark Bauerlein offered an account of the last half century (or more) of literary studies that is dazzling (in both its breadth and depth) and devastating (in its accuracy). While the history described in the article, “Truth, Reading, Decadence,” centers on developments in the field of English, the facts and factors Bauerlein considers are illuminating for all of the humanities and, arguably, all of higher education.

Consider Bauerlein’s summary of the state of hiring in English, “Openings in English dropped by 55 percent between 2007–08 and 2017–18—from 1,826 listings to 828—and undergraduate demand for the services of the lucky few who obtain a job continues to decline. From 2011 to 2017, the number of English bachelor’s degrees fell by more than 20 percent.”1 These numbers are stark on their own but become even more startling when considered in light of what preceded them:

In the sixties, the opposite was happening. The enrollment of all students in higher education rose from 3.6 million in 1959–60 to 8 million in 1969–70, forcing public universities to open campuses such as UC-Irvine and UC-Santa Cruz in 1965. The number of institutions of higher education climbed from 2,008 to 2,525 during the same period. Mass hiring of professors took place, with the number of instructors increasing from 281,506 in 1959–60 to 551,000 in 1969–70.

Many of those instructors were English graduate students who benefitted from this growth. 

As a result, the number of English majors grew from 20,128 graduates to 63,914 (“one out of every thirteen students”) eleven years later.2 This isn’t merely about numbers. It’s about what English became and what was being lost in the transformation (which is what the numbers reflect). As Bauerlein describes it:

Students who were concerned about social justice and who were told in a lit class, “Give me a careful feminist reading of Emma,” came to realize they could cut out the middle man. The professor may have tied that reading to a real-world movement against patriarchy, but it still sounded unnecessarily academic, too focused on an old work of literature. To combat sexism, one might just as easily take a recent film, a pertinent historical episode, or a political situation as the “text,” which seems a lot more relevant than a nineteenth-century novel about privileged gentry. The impatience could become especially acute if political readings of literature were just that—readings of literature, and more readings . . .3

This diagnosis goes a long way toward explaining what I’ve seen in my own classroom over the course of three decades of college teaching: students are experts at talking about the ideas in a text, but increasingly unable to talk about the text itself—its words, its style, its sentence structure, its rhetoric, its technique. After all, literature is a medium that uses language. In using language, it becomes a language, a language that can be understood through study and familiarity, much in the same way that science has and is a language, and math has and is its own language.

But a world in which ideas about literature (or ideas about anything, for that matter) become detached from the thing itself is a world ripe for all kinds of unmoorings. And we are seeing this very thing played out everywhere. Just as my students are sometimes tempted to think that reading the summary of a Jane Austen novel on SparkNotes is the same thing as actually reading the novel (it’s not), it has become easy to think that reading the abstract of a journal article on the website of the National Institutes of Health provides the same kind of knowledge about medicine a doctor possesses. Or that reading a couple of news articles about the Middle East makes our opinions on foreign policy knowledgeable. These things are no more true than the notion that reading about the Bible is the same as reading the Bible.  We mistake knowing about something or someone for actually knowing it or them. We assign as much authority to someone’s take on someone else’s take on something as we do firsthand knowledge. With the death of the author has come the death of expertise—along with, so it seems, the death of the English major

Although Bauerlein spends a good amount of space in his article describing and decrying the replacement of the pursuit of human truths with identity politics in the literature classroom, it’s not identity politics per se that is the main problem. The greater problem, rather, is abandoning the study of literature itself (while still calling it that). In Augustinian terms, the trouble is in using literature for some end rather than enjoying it for its own sake, for what it is. Indeed, as Bauerlein argues in his conclusion, “It sounds redundant, or just plain stupid, but it must be said: Literary study needs to be about literature, literature as literature, with its own genus of truth.”4

In light of Bauerlein’s analysis regarding the study of English, we might consider—regardless of our discipline—the wisdom of Parker J. Palmer’s subject-centered approach. In The Courage to Teach, Parker makes the case for making neither the teacher nor the student the center of the classroom (nor a pet ideology, it might be added), but the subject itself. When a teacher gives the subject an “independent voice”–in other words, “a capacity to speak its truth”– then “students can hear and understand” that subject–as well as the truth it can offer. Palmer  continues, “When the great thing speaks for itself, teachers and students are more likely to come into a genuine learning community, a community that does not collapse into the egos of students or teacher but knows itself accountable to the subject at its core.”5

Regardless of the discipline we teach, one of the ways we as Christian professors can meet a great need in a culture—in which not only is the purpose of things no longer a given, but neither is the assumption that such purpose even exists—is to help our students understand the nature of the subject itself. For we can’t enjoy (or use) something rightly unless we know what it is and what it is for.

Such a teleological approach encourages a right ordering of things not only within our disciplines and but also in our lives, thereby cultivating the proper purpose of education itself: giving voice to the truth each subject has to offer.

Footnotes

  1. Mark Bauerlein, “Truth, Reading Decadence,” First Things (June/July 2021): 22.
  2. Bauerlein 22.
  3. Bauerlein 25.
  4. Bauerlein 26.
  5. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. 20th Anniversary Edition (Jossey-Bass, 2017), 120.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary