The End of Things

Is it just me, or is the number of things that once mattered and have since been declared dead increasing at an increasing rate? God’s death was old news long before our grandparents were born, and in my longish lifetime the novel has died as many times as Caesar’s coward did before his death. Civility: dead. Civilization as we know it: ended. History, also ended. The family farm, the city, the Soviet Union: dead, dead, dead. Now there are the daily predictions about the imminent end of newspapers, newsmagazines, books—indeed of print itself. And the patient does look moribund. So, quick, before we ourselves disappear into what my wife calls the wide world of web, we have two such stories of our own to offer in this issue. Neither inspires much gloom, I think, because as the list above suggests, many things declared dead either bounce back to life or are superseded by something better.

We titled William M. Chace’s essay “The Decline of the English Department,” but where decline stops and death spiral starts is anybody’s guess. Professor Chace has taught English at a number of distinguished universities, and has been the president of two of them. Thus he is able to offer not only a broad perspective on the problem of declining enrollment in English and other humanities classes, but also several plausible recommendations for how to make the literary humanities more appealing to today’s university students. One laudable suggestion is for English professors: Don’t participate so eagerly in your own demise. Too often you undermine the significance of what you teach, instead of defending the value of reading and writing within the university.

Sigmund Freud died 70 years ago, but his grip on our psyches outlived him by half a century or so. Large societal forces such as feminism undercut his influence, but the person who did more than anyone else to doom Freudian psychoanalysis is someone you have quite likely never heard of—Aaron Beck. “The Doctor Is IN,” by Daniel B. Smith, profiles Dr. Beck, who is 88 years old and still hard at work. As Smith writes, Beck began to grow restive about the lack of supporting scientific evidence for psychoanalysis as long ago as the late 1940s when he was a psychiatry resident. But it was not until the 1960s that he began to develop what he calls cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), which takes a pragmatic and efficient approach to psychotherapy, focusing more on symptoms than on deep-seated causes. His approach can produce improvements in mental health in weeks rather than the years psychoanalysis can take. As a result, Smith writes, “Today CBT is the most well-funded, deeply researched, popular, and rapidly growing psychotherapy in existence.” Even the U.S. Army has plans to use his ideas to teach its soldiers “emotional resiliency,” as The New York Times reported in August.

Now if we can only get Dr. Beck together with those English professors.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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