Saturday, December 13, 2008

Banality Dressed up as Provocation

When the Financial Times says your English Department is idiotic, you're probably doing pretty bad. Well, that is exactly what has happened to Harvard.

Harvard's plans to change their required courses, "reveal a confusion about what a college English department is suppose to do," writes Christopher Caldwell.

Under the new regime, students will take courses in four “affinity groups” or “common-ground modules”: “Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions” and “Shakespeares”. Two of these (“Poets” and “Shakespeares”) are consistent with English as it has been taught at Harvard for a century. The other two are not. “There is no such thing as writing that is indigenous or ‘native’ to England,” runs a copy of the department’s guidelines for “Arrivals” obtained by the Harvard Crimson. “All the great writing between the 7th and the 12th century is produced by invaders and immigrants who knew that ‘they’ came from somewhere else.” This is a banality dressed up as a provocation. English literature surveys have always stressed the influence on English writers of foreign ones.... If literary influences were what Harvard wanted to stress, there would be no reason to scrap its current approach. “Arrivals” appears to be a pretext for teaching more about migration, building a bridge to the doctrines of post-colonial and cultural studies in which the many professors are heavily invested. The description of “Diffusions” reveals similar preoccupations: “What is this nation, ecosystem, town, region, community, continent? What does it mean to belong to a where, and what are the signs, and forms, and idioms, of belonging – and unbelonging.”

Caldwell is left to conclude that "The goal is to take the most superficial, unliterary and easily politicised aspects of the study of English and pretend they are the throbbing heart of the whole enterprise." Yet it was not always so. "Harvard’s English department was always relatively conservative," but by the 1980s "roughly half the faculty pined for an English department more like Yale’s or Princeton’s, which were quicker to embrace 'deconstruction', 'theory' and cultural studies. Freed of the need to master, say, Milton, junior faculty could devote their reading hours to continental semioticians."

Today, a note to would-be majors on the Harvard English website shows that theory has won there, too: “To ask how and why writers of different times and places have represented men and women (or the rich and the poor, or the coloniser and the colonised) as they have done is the question that compels cultural studies – a form of history and anthropology combined.” This is Harvard’s invitation to “the best that has been thought and said”? Even 25 years ago, we assumed that spending four years with Shakespeare, Donne and Keats was self-evidently “worth it”. Yet here is someone in the English department who feels that, to appeal, English literature must be passed off as anthropology.

An accusation that has beset English since it caught on as an academic discipline in the 1850s is that it is idleness masquerading as scholarship. This view was once held to be the badge of hard-headed businessmen and other philistines. But all those who believe that English is not a real field of study until it is garlanded with practical or political concerns embrace a version of it, even if they do so from the heights of a university English department.
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