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When conservatives declare the death of the English major, they highlight the need for the critical thinking skills that English departments excel at teaching.
It is not quite death and taxes, but laments about the decline of English departments are a perennial favorite of a certain kind of media outlet. Recently, former George W. Bush speechwriter William McGurn jumped on this bandwagon with a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Is Majoring in English Worth It?” In the article, McGurn cites some data from a mortgage website about salary expectations for different majors, from which he concludes that the English major flunks when it comes to return on investment. Why exactly has the English major come to be so undervalued? For McGurn, the reason is simple: “the watering down of the curriculum.” Quoting Jonathan Pidluzny, director of academic affairs for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (a right-wing lobbying organization), McGurn concurs that the culprit is English’s descent into studying “the epiphenomena of popular culture and identity politics.” And one of the clearest signs of this for McGurn is that, according to an ACTA study, forty-eight of the fifty-two top schools’ English departments (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report) now no longer require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare.
The worry that Shakespeare is no longer central to university education is perennial within a certain strain of conservative thinking.
A number of English professors offered rebuttals to this argument on Twitter, notably Aaron Hanlon. Hanlon effectively unpacks many of the logical eccentricities of McGurn’s article, an exercise I will not repeat. Rather, what interested me most about McGurn’s op-ed was how clearly it falls within a certain genealogy of late twentieth-century conservative thinking. Indeed, McGurn’s argument is nearly identical to one used by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly—she who helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Revisiting the culture wars of the 1990s in a 2007 column called “Advice to College Students, Don’t Major in English,” Schlafly ridicules a number of classes oriented around questions of race, class, and gender that she deems superfluous. As with McGurn, the clearest sign to Schlafly of the degeneration of English departments was their supposed abandonment of Shakespeare.
For years I taught Schlafly’s essay on the first day of my intro to the English major classes, precisely because it exemplifies the sort of spurious rhetoric that English classes teach young people to unravel. A snippet from Schlafly’s article suffices to highlight its similarities to McGurn’s:
In the decades before ‘progressive’ education became the vogue, English majors were required to study Shakespeare, the preeminent author of English literature. The premise was that students should be introduced to the best that has been thought and said. What happened? To borrow words from Hamlet: ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.’ Universities deliberately replaced courses in the great authors of English literature with what professors openly call ‘fresh concerns,’ ‘under-represented cultures,’ and ‘ethnic or non-Western literature.’
Schlafly even cites the same source as McGurn, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. She goes on to claim that it is no surprise that the Virginia Tech shooter was a Shakespeare-starved English major (Schlafly penned her essay in the wake of the April 16, 2007, shooting), evidently because in her estimation all this studying of minority literature disorders the brain. Similarly, McGurn thinks that college students need Shakespeare to build healthy minds, just as children need milk to build healthy bodies. For both Schlafly and McGurn, replacing him on syllabi with the likes of a Toni Morrison or an Olaudah Equiano is to invite mental osteoporosis.
These fears are linked to the belief that colleges exist to train employees, and that adults working in the ‘real world’ therefore know more about what students should be learning than do their professors.
For now, we will set aside the obvious point, missed by both Schlafly and McGurn, that there is likely no English department in the world that does not teach Shakespeare: the absence of a required course exclusively about Shakespeare does not mean he is not substantially incorporated into the curriculum in other ways. The more interesting issue is that neither Schlafly nor McGurn can imagine that the work of a liberal arts education could take place using texts that they do not personally consider indispensable. They are not alone in this, but rather represent a pervasive sensibility that a lay audience is well equipped to know what is best for college students. This viewpoint is deeply entwined with the neoliberal ethos that colleges exist to train employees, and that adults out working in the “real world” therefore know more about what college students should be learning than do their professors. This is a betrayal of a critical component of U.S. educational heritage: namely, the historical commitment to a higher education that helps produce mature, well-informed citizens. This aim justified the creation of many public and land-grant universities, not to speak of the scores of private colleges with similar missions.
But for McGurn, as for Schlafly, English majors’ lack of employability is not nearly so worrisome as the risk English pedagogy represents to the culture at large. Why is English suddenly so dangerous? It is because it incubates that reliable conservative bugbear, “political correctness.” To back up this claim, McGurn cites the conservative campus watchdog website Campus Reform. Campus Reform has a network of campus stringers who report on just about anything on a U.S. college campus that rubs them as left-leaning, LGBT-affirming, or multicultural. I got on their radar in 2017, and McGurn’s op-ed is of a kind with the reporting Campus Reform offers, with the audience expected to provide the outrage. In other words, it does not really even attempt to be persuasive; it is simply playing to the home crowd.
I wish that McGurn had talked with some English professors. As it happens, some of the most exciting critical thinking in English right now—of the very sort he laments as long fled—is happening precisely at the intersection of Shakespeare studies and what he would likely call “political correctness.” In Shakespeare and medieval studies, for example, there have been recent engagements with how the incorrectly assumed whiteness of the past has caused us to critically misunderstand historical texts. This, in turn, has allowed them to be enlisted by white supremacists. Scholars working in the context of the Race Before Race conferences are responsible for much of this work, and some of the insights from these scholars have started to filter out under the #shakerace Twitter hashtag, which aims at an improved understanding of the connections between race and early modernity.
Efforts to diversify our understanding of the past are not inimical to Shakespeare studies. Rather they enrich it.
Unless the point be missed, these efforts are not inimical to mainstream Shakespeare studies, nor do they seek the extinction of that field. Quite the contrary, Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies and president of the Shakespeare Association of America, is at the forefront of this work. On the question of how these new perspectives enhance the field, Thompson writes:
Contrary to the initial scholarly resistance to premodern race studies, what it takes to be a premodern race scholar is, in fact, a rigorous attentiveness to and mastery of multiple disciplines and methodologies. . . . [The Race Before Race conference] brought together medieval and early modern scholars who push our fields in new archival, theoretical, and practical directions with race at the heart of the inquiries and frameworks. . . . Moreover, the talks encouraged us to think critically about the ways that premodern race scholars function as activists in our fields and in our communities.
As Thompson’s remarks illustrate, working against the grain of generations of scholarly practice to reveal a more heterogenous early modern world is an exercise that requires an abundance of critical thinking and rigor in multiple methodologies. Indeed, one might infer that these approaches demand more critical thinking—in the archive and in the classroom—than does a flatfooted veneration of literary excellence. If some pundits are asking “Got Shakespeare?”, we might well turn the question back and ask, “Do they?”
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