Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Have We Fallen and Can't Get Up?

Cari first posted the link on our list for this article, "The Decline of the English Department: How it happened and what could be done to reverse it," by William M. Chace, who has taught at Berkeley, Stanford, Wesleyan, and Emory, and served as president of the last two. He is the author of 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way.Chace is old enough in the profession to be labeled a "grumpy ol' man," but there's more in the article to discuss, if we choose to, than that. I love his ending simply as a piece of writing:

If nothing is done to put an end to the process of disintegration, the numbers will continue in a steady downward spiral. More and more of the teaching jobs in the humanities will be occupied by untenured part-timers (in English, it is now one in six). But the good news is that certain forms of intellectual history will still be written and will still be accessible to ordinary readers. Shakespeare’s plays will still be performed, even if largely unsponsored by departments of English. Literary biography will still command an appreciative readership. The better private institutions, aware of noblesse oblige, will prove kinder than large public institutions to the literary humanities, but even this solicitude will have its limits.

The study of literature will then take on the profile now held, with moderate dignity, by the study of the classics, Greek and Latin. For those of us who care about literature and teaching, this is a depressing prospect, but not everyone will share the sense of loss. As the Auden poem about another failure has it, “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

But we can, we must, do better. At stake are the books themselves and what they can mean to the young. Yes, it is just a literary tradition. That’s all. But without such traditions, civil societies have no compass to guide them. That boy falling out of the sky is not to be neglected.

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