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  • What Are English Teachers Teaching?Vol. 2, No. 2, February 1940
  • Cleanth Brooks

In a book which appeared several years ago, Max Eastman makes some very sharp criticisms of the English professors. And in the course of that criticism he presents a graphic description of the plight in which they find themselves:

the professors of literature are now plainly on the defensive, and may be seen from time to time peeping under the lids of their writing desks, and poking around in all the corners of their departments and among their old papers, trying to find out, if they can, just 'what' subject it is they are teaching. Is it history, philology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, ethics? It cannot very well be any of these things because they are all more competently taught in other departments. And yet in a way it seems to be all of them together and a good deal more…. It behooves us … for their sakes as well as our offspring's, to look into this matter very soberly and find out if possible what, if anything, the professors of literature are teaching. After that we may be able to suggest what they ought to teach.

Mr. Eastman is very cocksure; the tone of gloating is more than just perceptible in the passage quoted. I have to disagree with his criticism as a whole profoundly. But he is here plainly right in saying that the professors are on the defensive, and I believe, further, that he is right about their confusion of purpose. It is about the confusion that I want to speak; for, in my opinion, the creation of the CEA constitutes an immensely important step toward clearing up that confusion. The average English department performs not one function, but several, and functions which are really more diverse than those usually subsumed under departments so different as those of economics and history, or of sociology and government. The answer to the question, "what do the English professors teach?," is several things, and quite admirable things to teach, but things which are finally only peripheral to the teaching of literature. An even more discouraging answer is this: many English departments are not engaged in teaching literature at all.

I do not intend this last statement as a flashy and specious paradox. I mean it literally, and I believe that it can be thoroughly substantiated. I propose that we may view the activities of English departments under three main headings. (I do not claim that this is the only possible division, but I think it is essentially sound, and it is sufficiently simple to make my point.) [End Page 127]

First, we may distinguish the various sciences of language. They are sciences, and in a world in which the prestige of science is so high, little need be said in their defence. Certainly nothing that I shall say is to be construed as an attack upon them. All honor to them and to the able scholars who profess them. One point only is relevant to our matter: we should not let the example of those rare persons who are at once good linguists and good critics mislead us into assuming that a sound discipline in linguistics in itself confers critical discrimination. So much for the English professor as scientist.

The second category is less easy to establish. I shall call it for want of a better term: the history of literature and history as reflected in literature. Again, probably no defence is necessary. The present-day department is so thoroughly committed to the study of literary history, it has labored so hard in this vineyard and with such fine success!—the prestige of the social sciences is so high, that there is little danger that the English professor as historian will be trampled out of existence. There is probably more danger that he will not recognize his function of historian for what it is. Incidentally, insofar as he does consciously recognize it, he probably strengthens his hand. He has the more incentive to equip himself properly in such fields as economics, philosophy, etc., and thus to set himself up as an able historian of culture.

The real danger...


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