Too Late to Save English Departments?

Thankfully, much is being made of Heather Mac Donald’s recent piece, “The Humanities and Us,” in the City Journal. She illustrates the decline of college English departments, where “gender, sexuality, race, and class” have taken over Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. The radicals of the 60s and 70s are firmly in charge; their diktats have attacked the hallmarks of literary study; and Mac Donald rightly calls for a return to standards at colleges. But standards won’t do any good if incoming freshmen are incapable of reading, thinking independently, and using logic. That has already begun to be the case, and it is going to get worse thanks to new “standards” known as Common Core.

As someone who has spent 20 years as a dissident college teaching assistant and instructor, I know that the only way to get back to genuine standards is through a numbers game. Only raw political power can affect the curriculum. As Harrison Dietzman writes, “what the academy needs is more conservative, and other, dissidents.” At this point the few conservative (or, if I may say so, just sane) English professors hold little power. In the 1990s, when I was a graduate student, I had to search out the conservative and moderate professors, then already well into middle age. They have not been replaced.

In fact, conservatives who teach the humanities are more often found in community colleges, with less prestige and intellectual influence. They are also allowed to work as adjuncts at four-year schools, hired at the last minute for barely subsistence wages to teach labor-intensive introductory courses like freshman composition. Most live in fear of losing their jobs for attending a National Association of Scholars conference or posting a comment online. 

Mac Donald writes that “insistent voices should rise from the faculty lounges and academic departments,” but that is easier said than done. I had been doing that, but lost my classes as an adjunct (at $2,100 each) at a community college after the president saw one of my op-eds about education. At another state university, I was told no more classes were available for me after a reader praised my Townhall columns to the department chair. 

I am not alone. I have published stories by other adjuncts and even tenured professors who find themselves publicly ridiculed and ostracized for not adhering to the dominant ideology.

What we need is a populist movement that demands that English professors fulfill their job descriptions and teach literature and writing. We don’t have that at the university level. Most citizens are put off by the status of Ph.D.s and the academic jargon they use. Most conservatives simply advise their children to stay away from the polluted humanities, to stick to the sciences or business. So the cycle just gets worse.

What happens in college follows what is taught in primary and secondary schools. Many of my colleagues and I have noticed among college freshmen an unwillingness and inability to read complex and long works. Assign anything from the nineteenth century and the biggest complaint will be that the essay or story (forget entire novels) was “too long.” Ask any student to explain one sentence from such a text and even the brightest future doctors and scientists will look at you dumbfounded. “Just this one sentence,” I would ask my students.  “Take it apart. Look at the clauses. Look at the words, their definitions, their connotations.”  Nothing.  Not surprisingly, very few students know the feeling of getting “lost” in a novel.

I’ve come to realize that such reluctance may not be impertinence but a lack of familiarity with the task. The training of their high school teachers only serves to encourage the narcissistic and fragmentary conversations they are naturally drawn to as adolescents and in which they engage online. While students may have “read” The Scarlet Letter in high school, chances are that the reading  involved excerpts, summaries, graphic adaptations, and films—as well as the feminist spin on Hester Prynne. 

The “writing” projects may have involved PowerPoint presentations, videos, and skits. These are done in peer groups, which is also where much of the class discussion takes place. The annual fall teaching workshops at the community college where I taught a few years ago (before losing classes after the op-ed) focused on “engaging” students with such methods.

Because of the pedagogy promoted in education colleges and professional associations many of our college students cannot sit down and read a 600-page novel and then write a 10-page paper on it.  They have never been asked to. 

While there is no populist revolt against the state of English departments, citizens are involved in the fight against Common Core. This is a set of “standards” for K-12 (so far established only in math and English language arts) that the vast majority of states have adopted, largely lured by federal  “stimulus” funds in 2009.

These standards give a federal imprimatur to a radical agenda that seeks to replace the classic works of literature with the Americanized version of “socialist realism.” One example is Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies, in which most men are cheaters and drunkards, Fidel Castro is a hero, and masturbation and intercourse are explicitly described. This is a Common Core recommendation for ninth and tenth graders.

Before Common Core came on the scene, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English wrote about respecting and teaching “alternative literacies,” like oral or visual. College courses likewise have not only abandoned the eternal verities for works obsessed with race, class, and gender, but also the written word for “visual rhetoric,” “film studies,” and “graphic novels.”

The Common Core English Language Arts standards codify such non-literary work.

First, they call for the replacement of many of the literary works in high school English classes with “informational texts.” By the upper grades of high school a whopping 70 percent of time is to be spent on “informational texts,” which vary from original historical documents (although often in misleading snippets accompanied by ideological academic commentary) to such things as Environmental Protection Agency insulation standards.

Only 30 percent of class time would be devoted to literature. Appendix B of the standards recommends that the rest of the time be spent on such readings as Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, and FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009).

Here are some of the recommended  “performance tasks” to be aligned with such reading: “Students integrate the information provided by Mary C. Daly, vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, with the data presented visually [in a chart] in the FedViews report,” and “Students analyze the hierarchical relationships between phrase searches and searches that use basic Boolean operators.” 

As an English major who had written many papers on poetry and fiction, I was prepared to write summaries of Arbitron ratings on radio listenership at the advertising agency where I worked after graduation. But had I been asked to read such eye-glazing material in high school English I would have gone running from the English department.

Common Core’s emphasis on “close reading” is a ruse for allowing those incapable of independent grade level reading to keep up with the group through extensive discussions on short excerpts, and even computer games. That will further deteriorate reading ability.

The standards also call for the chop-shop method, “close reading,” on short, out-of-context passages that distort the overall meaning of the text, and collective and collaborative learning in groups.  Under Common Core, high school juniors and seniors are to be evaluated on their ability to “initiate and participate in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”

Unfortunately, those progressive pedagogical methods of group work and projects have been shown to be ineffective. But students are well-versed and comfortable with such collaborative learning and extend the discussion format to class discussion, where they convey impressions, feelings, and well-learned political platitudes. It’s almost like group therapy. 

A student will say something like “I agree with Josh, but I’d like to add to his point about gender identity…” Grouped with their peers, students are not likely to engage in academically challenging debates. Indeed, the Common Core standards preclude such debate–debate that is based on logic, evidence, and rhetorical mastery—because it involves winners and losers.

Thus we have Section 1.b. of the listening standards which calls on students to “Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.” Section 1.c. calls for propelling “conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions . . . verify or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.”  
Section 1.d. also calls for students to “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible, and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.”  
These are essentially 1960s-style rap sessions.
Things are bad enough in college English now; Common Core will only make things worse.