Robert Scholes addresses the gray situation of English as an academic field. The apocalyptic echo of Gibbon will alert those who feel alarmed and uneasy about English. “What I am trying to do in this book,” he says, “is work through the very complex situation of a field of study that seems to me hollow, falling, though perhaps not visibly fallen” (p. 18).
Preliminary to the dire part of the story, he sketches the rise of English as an academic field. This is the most rewarding part of the book. Rhetoric and oratory dominated academe in the 1860’s. It was not until 1889 that English Literature superceded Latin at Yale. The gradual demise of rhetoric and oratory provided the opportunity for the development of English departments in the early 1900’s. Professor Scholes sees the apogee of English in William Lyon Phelps, who reigned at Yale from 1892 to 1933. Scholes sees the “fall” of English beginning after Phelps. This view seems questionable when one considers the great years after World War II, years with outstanding professors such as R. S. Crane and so many others. Instead, we are told that the New Critics had become “a clergy without dogma, teaching sacred texts without a God” (p. 27). The New Critics hardly fit this ecclesiastical trope. If anything was “sacred” for them it was reading texts with all the insight possible. His claim that Yale New Criticism and deconstruction “retained undercurrents of the Christian faith of Billy Phelps” (p. 25) is difficult to see; one gets lost in this Yale fog.
When Scholes describes aspects of the malaise of English, many of us would agree. “I think we feel bad because we do not believe in the research that is required of us for the Ph.D. itself and for professional progress afterward” . . . (p. 44). Another familiar lament is that we are rewarded not for teaching well, but for the quantity we manage to publish. We find ourselves more and more “requiring knowledge about texts instead of encouraging the direct experience of these texts” (p. 80). We pile up a mountain of scholarship that is largely irrelevant to students or to daily existence. Meanwhile, service courses are sniffed at; they “are for those benighted folk who are not permitted to use the front door” (p. 85). English departments are divided into an ever-increasing number of specialties. Much of this has been for years the familiar topics of faculty chat rooms everywhere.
However, when he goes on about “truth” at some length, I begin to feel like Pontius Pilate. The root of our feeling bad about ourselves is, he says, “our estrangement from the possibility of truth” (p. 48). “The ‘love of truth,’ “he says elsewhere, “seems to me the first protocol of teaching, upon which any others that we might devise would depend” (p. 57). We get the suggestion that William Lyon Phelps trafficked in truth, but that today we do not. Since Phelps was a clergyman, does “truth” mean something like the edicts of divine [End Page 227] revelation or is it metaphysical truths, or simply such truths as “a preposition requires the accusative”? Does he mean that we are stuck in the post-Nietzsche world bereft of God? What is “truth”?
At one point we are offered an exemplum: the education of Louis Althusser. The meaning of the exemplum is that “truth is precisely what his teachers could not give him, though the best of them could give him a model of that love of truth and eloquence in its service that constitutes the integrity of our profession” (p. 69). It is difficult to believe that this love of truth has vanished from the field of English. It surely is likely that today’s students can, like Althusser, find professors that evince a love of truth. I have never encountered a good professor of English who lacked faith that books can tell “the truth about anything important in the lives of those they are teaching” (p. 81).
According to Scholes, our...