“The novel will be dead or moribund in less than a hundred years,” predicted American novelist John O’Hara in 1959. The same may be true, if current enrollment trends continue, of English departments.

A report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found the percentage of humanities majors has fallen from 30 percent to less than 16 percent in a single generation. But neither a waning public interest in reading nor the post-graduation job market bear the full burden of blame. English departments face a crisis of identity.

Faculty have “dismembered” their curricula, Stanford English Professor William Chace argued in The American Scholar, supplementing traditional classes with a smattering of “themed” courses. These new courses raise questions of gender and racial identity, sexuality and popular culture, at the expense of a foundational syllabus already equipped to answer these very questions. The English canon is a wellspring of wisdom, yet many academics dismiss the classics in favor of more contemporary or marginal literatures.

As the canon of English literature has come under criticism for being too white and too male, faculty have sought to absolve themselves of guilt by creating a clean slate. What they might instead consider, rather than wiping the slate clean, is to look at the canon with fresh eyes.

Modern, multicultural literature has a place in English departments, but to read deeply, we must first understand the history of English literature since the 1300s. The current crisis of identity has confused many departments, forcing the discipline to plow forward without a defined vision.

The explosion of tech-based jobs, coupled with a growing public skepticism for the value of higher education, has driven students away from the English major. Between 1991 and 2012, the number of Yale students majoring in English fell from 165 to just 62, and in terms of course enrollment the numbers are similarly bleak. In the late 1970s, almost five thousand students enrolled in Yale English courses each year. Now, that figure is around 2,400. Professor Chace argues that the faculty—and not the students—should be faulted for these dramatic declines in enrollment.

While, to some extent, English departments can do very little to stop these trends, the actions they have taken have left them worse off than before. Many schools have gone the way of Harvard, which announced several years ago that it would allow students to craft their own “journeys” through the English major. Departments have eliminated requirements and expanded the English canon to include a greater diversity of voices. But without a single path, students are now free to wander aimlessly for four years without the guidance they need.

Instead, departments must convince students that an English major offers a foundational, recognizable set of knowledge and skills. This guild-like model of studying English would see stronger faculty–student mentorship, a greater number of core requirements, and more department-wide colloquia that would unite undergraduates in a common discussion.

English departments once thrived on a foundational set of prose and poetry. Today, while many of these same texts appear on course syllabi, academics struggle to preserve a sense of coherence across their departments. And because professors can no longer assume that every English student in their class has read the same works of literature, conversations and lectures can often feel fragmented.

Pandering to the literary whims of the present, without an awareness of the past, produces immature teaching and learning. In 1944 T. S. Eliot said that a student of the humanities can only reach a “maturity of mind” by locating his place in the span of history.

Phrases like “core knowledge” and “foundational experience” have all but vanished from English department discussions, replaced by an emphasis on a student’s “personal journey” and “making the major more accessible.”

A decade ago, English students at Yale could find Shakespeare on twelve different course syllabi in a single academic year. Now, the bard appears on fewer than six. Other authors have undergone similar reductions: Austen and Spenser, who appeared in three separate courses in the 2006–7 academic year at Yale, will each be featured only once in the next year. Not to mention D. H. Lawrence, who has disappeared from the English department altogether.

As a graduate of Yale’s Directed Studies program now in my final year of the English major, I believe there are many lessons that English departments could learn from the structure of humanities programs like Directed Studies. As Roosevelt Montás, who heads the Core Curriculum at Columbia College, said at a Directed Studies panel discussion at Yale this spring, “These programs provide a kind of antidote to the disintegration of knowledge that has characterized higher education for the past 50 years.”

Good teaching in the humanities requires a well-crafted syllabus, and whole departments stand and fall by the strength of the texts they teach. The power of a common curriculum was clear to me when, after completing Directed Studies at Yale, I entered the English major for the first time. The first two semesters of the required “Major English Poets” sequence were a testament to the importance of syllabi.

This sequence of classes stand as the best of what an English department can offer: a chronological progression of exquisite poetry, a small classroom setting, and large amounts of reading punctuated by thoughtfully written papers. My professors in these classes understood that the key to good teaching is to trust the strength of the syllabus. Having traveled the path of the syllabus many times before, they anticipated each bend in the road and could point out the destination ahead, all while letting the students make the journey themselves.

I found that in reading the work of major English poets, my class confronted many fundamental human questions. Through each of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we were led to ask, What do human beings love? In Milton’s Paradise Lost, questions of language reigned supreme: how do the words we use shape the way we experience the world? And in the poetry of Louise Glück we discovered how loss can lead to the fragmentation of the self. Topics like these are at the core of human experience, and should lie at the heart of any English department.

Universities have not done nearly enough to counteract the declining national interest in English literature. To be taken more seriously, English departments must slow down, take stock, and renew their faith in the power of the language.

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