Letters - Winter 2010

Response to Our Autumn Issue

By Our Readers | December 1, 2009


English Studies

William M. Chace concludes his powerful essay “The Decline of the English Department” (Autumn 2009) with a passionate call for a return to the study of great books for “the intrinsic value of the works them­selves”—something he maintains will enable the study of literature to “take on the profile now
held, with moderate dignity, by the study of the classics, Greek and Latin.”

Gilbert Highet, my distinguished mentor at Columbia University, who taught the classics for 40 years, also believed in the importance of great books, which he brought to life in class and in print through a humane form of scholarship. He concen­trated on those aspects of the classics that he thought made them worth studying—their truth, beauty, and wisdom, and the imagery and language that inspired him—without burying the texts under a technical, theoretical superstructure.

Robert J. Ball
Honolulu, Hawaii

I am utterly sympathetic with William Chace’s viewpoint in his essay on the decline of literary studies in American universities. His final sentence even brought a few tears. Indeed! We must not neglect that boy falling out of the sky. But first we must notice him, and identify him. His tragic story is especially poignant in this context because it was his father Daedalus who “lost” him, who failed to protect him, who set him up, as it were, to fall. Are we not doing the same, meta­phorically, by failing to teach the Icarus­ story to our students as well as the countless other ancient tales of wonder and imagination? In my experience as a professor in a public university, when we do manage to do this, we see our students’ eyes light up, and their joy is patent.  My thanks to Chace for inspiring us with an article that deserves to be taken as a challenge, not a dirge.

Ellen Handler Spitz
Baltimore, Maryland

William Chace’s brilliant article describes my own disillusionment with graduate work in the 1980s in comparative literature and the fight I’m up against now teaching high school English, in which traditional texts and the historical canon are fought against as irrelevant in light of all the current –isms. The article made me feel less alone!

Dino D’Agata
Washington, D.C.

Although William Chace correctly identifies many of the causes of the decline in popularity of the English major, he misses a fundamental cause. Students have moved away from the study of English, philosophy, history, and other intrinsically valuable areas of study because of the increase in college credentials. As Chace notes, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, more young people entered higher education than ever before in American history. According to the U.S. Census, the percentages of Americans over 25 with four years of college or more increased from under 15 percent in 1975 to nearly 30 percent in 2007. The result has been credential inflation. The ascendancy of “practical” majors has grown because new entrants into the labor market need advantages over the competition in an economy flooded with college diplomas. As the competition has intensified, traditional fields of concentration have lost value as currency for obtaining desirable jobs. Students who major in subjects that offer the opportunity to study and reflect on the larger questions of human life face the possibility of spending their lives studying and reflecting in underemployment or unemployment. The greatest threat to the intellectual traditions of the university may be our success in providing access to it.

Carl L. Bankston III
New Orleans, Louisiana

Despite his impeccable qualifications, William Chace is still thinking in a world that no longer exists as he mourns the loss of English and the other humanities as “disciplines” in Western universities. As a slightly older scientist, author, and academic, I see the same history from a different perspective. The global population has doubled; technology has revolutionized social communication; and the old class elitism of “we university educated” versus the “rest of them” has vanished. The “meanings” of culture, history, and literature have inevitably changed. For academe to suppose it can ignore this process is to be like an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand.

Surely, there is much more to academic responsibility than the one extreme of pandering to students’ immediate perceived academic needs or the other of preserving the “sacred ideas” of the past.

Mary E. Clark
Cottage Grove, Oregon

William Chace lucidly describes what he regards as the decline of English studies in U.S. higher education since the 1970s. His scattershot analysis of the causes of this decline is worth discussion but less persua­sive. His use of Harvard’s new requirements for English majors to exemplify such decline is, however, plain shoddy.

The old requirements just replaced had been broadly operative since 1970, the decade in which Chace posits that the decline of English studies began. Every set of curricular requirements needs periodic revision, particularly in a discipline as responsive to cultural change as English studies. When formulating the new require­ments, we remained acutely conscious of the dangers threatening the discipline that Chace sketched in his article: abandoning a commitment to the discipline as a whole, to its fundamental principles, and to its ambi­tions. That is why we designed four courses that each major would take, while also retaining a wide range of electives (most of which cover canonical authors); that’s why these courses ensure, no less well than the older requirements, coverage of great works of Anglophone literature across the last 1300 years; and that’s why we call these courses “common ground courses.”

When Chace says that these courses assign “whatever poets [or writers] the given instruc­tor would select,” perhaps he might trust such professors to assign canonical works and masterpieces as well as some works less familiar, and to provide a chronological framework for them. We do. This term, for example, the chair of the department is teaching one course on Romantic poets and Helen Vendler is teach­ing another on traditions of lyric poetry.

Chace describes the four common ground courses as “affinity groups.” This phrase is a red rag to any anti-permissive bull. The phrase is, however, incorrect; the proper term is “common ground courses.” Chace attacks requirements that should and would command his respect if he had taken the time to examine them and to make inquiries to the department, rather than to rely, basically, on two partially erroneous newspaper articles.

The required “survey” that he laments we have dropped was a lecture course that had become increasingly problematic because of its size. All student writing was graded by assistants, all discussion led by assistants. The common ground courses create much smaller course enrollments; this means direct contact with regular faculty.

It’s true, as Chace writes, that some aspects of the scene nationwide do not look good. English majors are dropping as a percentage of all majors (though not so much in absolute numbers, especially at selective colleges), while business majors have risen. Some literary fields and arbiters have backed themselves into corners that are too tight, with standard corner features: coterie audiences speaking condescendingly about those beyond the pale; short historical memory; and predictable sets of players (instantly recognizable heroes and villains). On the whole, though, talk of decline in our discipline is self-indulgent, unstrategic, and in many instances inaccurate.

The Harvard Department of English wants to define the challenges and to seize the extraordinary opportunities of the future of our discipline and its genuine global reach (not its presence in the United Kingdom and United States alone). We want to nurse the living future of classic works we have loved and continue to teach, as well as the future of more recent works, some of which will become classics. Our new requirements and common ground courses are part of that project.

Daniel Donoghue
James Engell
James Simpson
Cambridge, Massachusetts
(The writers are director of undergraduate studies, chairperson,and director of graduate studies in the Harvard Department of English.)

William M. Chace replies:  My Harvard colleagues want to remember their curricular labors as having brought forth “common ground courses” while I, having read both the Harvard Crimson and The Chronicle of Higher Education, was mistakenly led to believe that the correct term is “affinity groups.” This phrase, repugnant to my correspondents, has stood uncorrected in what the public could read for months about what Harvard has done. I thought it was the going term; of course I now regret using it.

My Harvard colleagues complain that I did not seek counsel directly from them. Suppose I had. Would they have told me that Professor Stephen Greenblatt did not tell the Crimson that the substance of the new plan will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves”? Would they have denied, despite the presence of “common ground courses,” that there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would necessarily have read by the time of graduation? Would they have told me that their new curriculum would not thrust into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves?

We also differ over a matter of trust. It’s no surprise to me that, under the new order of things at Harvard, the distinguished scholar Helen Vendler teaches a course on lyric poetry and the chair of the department teaches one on Romantic poets. Harvard’s experts, like all experts, can be trusted to teach their specialties. But should one trust the tenure and tenure-track faculty at Harvard to “assign canonical works and masterpieces”? After all, my colleagues close their reprimanding letter by granting themselves as much wiggle room as possible by promising to “nurse” the future of books both classic and recent, the ones “we have loved” as well as others that may or may not become classic. Trust, but verify.

Who Killed Sigmund Freud?

It was a delight to read “The Doctor Is In” by Daniel B. Smith in the Autumn Scholar. Aaron Beck’s discovery of cognitive-behavior therapy is well appreciated by therapists throughout the world.

I have been a practicing psychologist for 50 years and attribute much of my success as a psychotherapist to the valuable modality CBT is. Years ago therapists experimented with a variety of therapeutic approaches. Today, CBT is widely practiced and in many cases the treatment of choice.

Kenneth Herman
Wyckoff, New Jersey

While I would surely not discount Aaron Beck’s significant contribution to cognitive treatment for depression, to imply that it was the primary factor in the demise of psycho­analysis is an exaggeration. Freudian methodologies have long been recognized as idiosyncratic, unproven ideas appealing to professionals who enjoyed maintaining a detached and unemotional power base with their patients. Psychoanalysis became more popular in the United States than it ever was in Europe, because in early 20th-century America it was associated with intellectual sophistication. As calls increased for objective, scientific validation of the efficacy of psycho­therapeutic approaches, psycho­analysis alone never stood much of a chance. Most contemporary psychodynamic therapists have incorporated a variety of other techniques into their work, in addition to the impres­sive—but sometimes stigmatized—results of pharmaceuticals.

Other theorist-practitioners such as B. F. Skinner, Albert Bandura, Donald Meichen­baum, and Carl Rogers have been as influential as Beck in the evolution of effective therapies. These and other pioneers, coupled with the humanizing cultural influences of the later 20th century, hammered the final nails into the coffin of Freudian psychoanalysis.

Gary F. Kelly
Potsdam, New York

While Albert Ellis may have yelled at his patients and was ousted at age 91 from his own institute (later reinstated), it is at best disingenuous to dismiss him as “the Lenny Bruce of psychotherapy” in an article about Aaron Beck. Albert Ellis formulated and developed rational emotive behavioral therapy, roughly at the same time that Beck was formulating his quite similar theory. Even Beck acknowledged that “there is no question that Ellis is the pioneer in modern-day psychotherapy. He really cleared the road for the rest of us who followed.”

Diana d’Ambra
Maplewood, New Jersey

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