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Why English Departments Died

The study of literature no longer animates students’ minds and souls.

John Richard Cary
John Richard Cary, professor of German literature at Johns Hopkins University, wearing tie and jacket, sitting with his hands together as he meets with two male students over an opened book. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

For a number of reasons mostly within my control, I attended a very bad college, where I happened to be a very mediocre student.

I was there to study classics, and discovered upon my arrival that the program was largely non-existent. (I read Homer in the first semester and found that, just as in high school, it was actually the capstone of the Greek curriculum.)


So I had to waste my time and tuition dollars elsewhere. I took up (and dropped) both philosophy and theology, and managed to stick out most of the way through history and English. I dropped philosophy because the professors were all bores and theology because the professors were all nuts. I kept English, for the most part, because the professors were delightful.

They were all liberals, of course—the only conservatives were in the business school—but that was beside the point. They were bright, and they were pleasant, and they cared about what they were teaching—enough, for the most part, not to abuse it with the ideological torture devices of the postmodern academy.

The curriculum itself was fairly traditional, too, as long as you selected your courses carefully. I managed to steer clear of feminist poetry and postcolonial studies. I read the literature of the English Renaissance with the greatest living scholar of Edmund Spenser—an affable, donnish figure, then pushing ninety, who had studied at Yale with the New Critics and at Cambridge with C.S. Lewis. I read Jane Eyre and Kipling with an old-school elbow-patch lecturer, who did me more than a few favors in not letting me fail Victorian Literature. I read the modernist poets with a ponytailed South African eccentric, whose performative borderline madness brought the form and its substance to life.

I loved studying literature, and realize now that I managed to do so in a manner quickly vanishing from the landscape of American higher ed. I read the monumental classics, from Beowulf to The Four Quartets. But I also got to read Julian of Norwich, and the lesser poems of Ezra Pound, and countless other staggering little works that I would not have been likely to find outside the classroom.

I remember in particular being taken in by Pound’s “Near Perigord”—a speculative historical poem on Bertran de Born, the medieval Occitan troubadour and noble condemned by Dante to the eighth circle of Hell—and writing my biggest paper for that modernist lit course on it. I did not (as I was supposed to) clear the idea with the professor. He handed it back a few weeks later, having scribbled on the back that I completely misunderstood the assignment. A few lines below that, as I understand it, was a generous pity “A.”


Just three years after my graduation, I wonder how many students could report similar experiences. In a semi-viral essay from the latest issue of the New Yorker, Nathan Heller surveys the “free fall” in humanities enrollment and asks “What happened?”

Let me tell you, the present is a foreign country.

Heller reports from two ends of the spectrum, at Arizona State University and Harvard College. He is baffled that the number of English majors at the former dropped by 39 percent in an eight-year period, when “The university’s tenure-track English faculty is seventy-one strong—including eleven Shakespeare scholars, most of them of color.” He does not understand how the same figure at the latter has dropped by three-quarters in roughly twice as long, when Harvard students are so concerned with “identity,” etc.

In one of the essay’s most noteworthy passages, Harvard dean Amanda Claybaugh admits that her English students are now incapable of reading The Scarlet Letter—a work of popular fiction not even 200 years old—because the language is so complex as to be foreign.

Heller and his correspondents throw out some ideas about the causes of the crisis. James Shapiro, a Columbia professor, unironically asserts that 1958—when the spigot of federal money opened wide with the National Defense Education Act—marked “the beginning of the glory days of the humanities.” Everything turned to hell when the money stopped after 2007.

This is nonsense, of course, and the actual problem is quite simple: bad professors teaching bad curricula to bad students. There is the broader crisis in education, too, which leaves even elite university students unable to engage the materials taught to middle schoolers a century ago.  But in the immediate sense, the downfall of the humanities is mostly self-inflicted.

It started a few generations ago—1958 is a fine starting point, though the double influx of Vietnam draft dodgers and G.I. Bill beneficiaries a decade or so later is probably a better one—when people who had no business being in college started flooding American campuses. That shift necessitated the start of the dumbing down. When enough of those newcomers funneled into PhD programs and then to faculties, the dumbdown continued by chance more than by choice.

How much the problems of racial and LGBT radicalism—the more visible afflictions of humanities today—lie downstream of this process is open for discussion. The fundamental shift is not political, nor is it economic. It is simply academic.

Human nature did not change between 2012 and 2020. English departments did. The last vestiges of the old regime died off. (My own friend, the vaunted Spenser expert, went to his rest in the first weeks of the pandemic, sixty-seven years after he graduated from Yale.) What happened to the English major is no mystery at all to any sensible person who walks into an English classroom in any but a handful of American schools today. The study of literature has ceased to be what it was in the days when it could animate a student’s mind and soul.

A few weeks ago, I found myself dragged to a bookstore/cafe/bar that did not do very well on any of those counts. But amid the stacks of BLM manifestos and girlboss self-help manuals, I found a volume of Pound’s selected poems. Unlike the one already in my study, it included “Near Perigord.”

A few days later, I found myself pacing by the fireplace as I reread the poem that first captured my imagination in an undergrad English class.

I am happy to report that it still sings, and it still haunts, and it can still excite a young man’s mind—with its mixing of romance and conspiracy, of strategy and lyric—in a way that no disquisition on racism in The Tempest ever could.

Look for it on any syllabus in any college in the country, and ask yourself again why the humanities are dying.